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Enforcement of Auto Insurance Law Criticized

Judiciary: Study by state panel says some judges show leniency while others believe they cannot.


The state's Judicial Council reported Tuesday that judges are not implementing California's mandatory auto insurance law uniformly, and it suggested that the Legislature lower the stiff $1,350 penalty for some first-time violators.

The 21-member council headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George said it had surveyed California courts and found that a large majority of judges feel they have discretion to reduce, suspend or do away with the fines altogether in specific cases.

But, the council added, 15% of the courts reporting said their judges believe the law allows them no discretion.

"There are differences in outcomes [of cases] among the courts because application of the law varies," the council said.

That amounted to an admission by the chief policymaking body of the state court system that the mandatory insurance law is being inconsistently enforced.

The Judicial Council also reported that mandatory auto insurance violations are clogging many courtrooms, leading to long lines and frayed tempers.

"Large urban courts, such as Los Angeles Municipal and Oakland-Piedmont-Emeryville Municipal, have recently reported that . . . violations make up at least 50% of their traffic court appearances," the council said.

"Courts are reporting longer lines at the traffic counters, an increase in written and telephone inquiries and an increase in requests for court appearances, continuances and arrangements for installment payment plans," it added.

"As a result, courts have fewer resources to serve other members of the public adequately and fairly. . . ."

In Ventura, for example, transactions that used to take two minutes now take an hour. And at times, court personnel have been forced "to call the sheriff to handle irate customers," the report said.

Attempts to contact legislators and state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush for comment on Tuesday found most parties saying they had not yet read the report.

However, one of the Democratic candidates for insurance commissioner, Marin County Supervisor Hal Brown, noted that Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) has already introduced a bill that would explicitly grant judges the right, for good cause, to reduce or eliminate fines for first-time violators.

Brown endorsed Cedillo's measure and said it should be remembered that low-income people face a severe burden in both buying the insurance and paying the fines.

The present law provides that anyone involved in an accident or stopped for a traffic violation must provide proof of insurance. First-time penalties, without exception, are supposed to total $1,350--a $500 minimum fine plus state-imposed penalty assessments.

Under the law, new and renewal registration of vehicles must also be accompanied by such proof.

Such laws have proved extremely difficult to enforce in many states, particularly in California, where estimates have said that as many as 30% of the state's drivers have been uninsured.

While the 2-year-old revision of the state's mandatory insurance law has brought those percentages down somewhat, some judges have said the fines are too high. In addition, several law enforcement agencies in Orange County and elsewhere say the costs of enforcement are so high that they have ceased to issue citations.

In one recent Santa Monica case, a woman before Superior Court Judge Hugh Gardner was given a $1,350 fine for not having insurance when she was stopped (although she did purchase it by the time she appeared in court).

Two other judges down the hall said that in similar cases, they have given lesser fines.

Judge Richard Neidorf said he would normally give a $500 total penalty under such circumstances. "Not everyone deserves to be maxed out," he said. "If they have the insurance by the time they get to me, I feel they deserve somewhat of a break. The code is unforgiving."

Judge Robert Altman said he tailors penalties to his assessment of one's ability to pay. The fine under the law, he pointed out, is now greater than that for battery or drunk driving.

"We are treating ordinary citizens far more rigorously than people guilty of far more serious offenses," Altman said.

The survey released Tuesday by the Judicial Council found that 85% of the 69 courts reporting said their judges believed they had either considerable or some discretion in levying the penalties.

Thirty-eight per cent said their judges believed they could reduce, suspend or dismiss the fine. Another 17% said they could either reduce or suspend it, 6% said they could reduce or dismiss it and 6% said they could suspend or dismiss it.

Ten per cent said their only option to implementing it fully was to reduce it, 4% said their only other option was to suspend it and 4% said their only other option was to dismiss it.

The other 15% of the reporting courts said their judges believed they had no choice but to enforce the law as written.

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