In a move proponents say could be a significant boon to low-income Californians, the legislature and a group of lawyers are trying to stop courts from tacking late fees onto traffic violations.
Bay Area residents have racked up tens of millions of dollars in unpaid debt as a result of fees courts charge on top of minor infractions — such as tickets for speeding, failing to stop at a stop sign, jaywalking, loitering or failing to pay the fare on BART. California courts can charge up to $300 every time someone misses a deadline, even if the initial infraction is just a $35 jaywalking ticket. Those fees add up into an insurmountable burden for people who are out of work, homeless or have low-paying jobs, said Rio Scharf, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Some of his organization’s clients are thousands of dollars in debt thanks to these late fees, he said.
A proposal from state legislators would eliminate those fees and forgive the debt racked up by Californians. But Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration isn’t fully on board, and instead supports reducing — not getting rid of — late fees.
In the meantime, the lawyers’ committee has sent out letters to 30 California counties — including several in the Bay Area — demanding they stop collecting the fees. If they refuse, the committee is prepared to sue.
“They’re making it very hard for people to find stability and basically move on from past traffic court issues and stabilize, get on their feet,” Scharf said. “It’s sort of an overlooked issue and one that hasn’t been talked about much, but it has the potential of bringing a lot of relief to the very Californians that most deeply need financial assistance.”
This year’s state budget, passed by the legislature Monday, calls for doing away with the $300 late fees — officially called civil assessments — and replacing that revenue with money from the general fund. But Newsom has yet to sign off on the proposal, or even signal his approval.
“Discussions are continuing between the administration and the legislature on this and other outstanding issues,” H.D. Palmer, deputy director for external affairs in the state Department of Finance, wrote in an email. “We’ve been clear about the importance of reducing the civil assessment in an overall effort to reduce the financial penalties related to crimes that often become a significant burden for individuals experiencing poverty. That said, the administration doesn’t support the complete elimination of the assessment.”
Instead, Newsom’s administration supports expanding a pilot program that gives judges the ability to waive and reduce penalties based on someone’s circumstances, Palmer said.
The Judicial Council, the policy arm of the California courts, has expressed concern in the past about the disproportional impact late fees have on low-income Californians, said spokesman Blaine Corren.
“The council is grateful for the efforts of both the governor’s administration and the legislature to reform the system and provide necessary backfill funding for the judicial branch,” he wrote in an email.
Even if the state does not change its late fee policy, several Bay Area courts could face lawsuits. Last week, the lawyers’ committee sent letters to superior courts in Contra Costa, San Francisco, Marin, Napa, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties demanding they stop collecting late fees by June 30. The fees are illegal, the lawyers argue, because the courts charge blanket fees to all defendants rather than assessing each infraction on a case-by-case basis.
The lawyers’ committee is fresh off a victory in San Mateo County, where the group sued over the collection of fees earlier this year. In May, the court agreed to suspend fee collection at least through October 15, and to consider permanently waiving fees.
That case centered on plaintiff Anthony McCree, who was homeless and on his way to a job interview when he was cited for fare evasion at a BART station. He says he never received a citation — likely because he had no home address — and was shocked to later learn he had racked up $860 in debt thanks to late penalties.
Throughout the county, there were 109,000 cases with unpaid debt worth more than $31 million as of last fall, Scharf said.
Representatives from San Mateo County Superior Court did not respond to a request for comment.
The superior court in Alameda County raked in more than $18 million in revenue between July 2018 and June 2021 thanks to late fees, Scharf said. Contra Costa County court raised more than $11 million during the same time period, and San Francisco’s court raised more than $6 million. The lawyers already are in talks with the superior court in Alameda County regarding its fees, so the court was not among those that received a letter last week threatening litigation.
Santa Clara County court has not collected fees for the past two years, Scharf said. A representative from the court did not immediately respond when asked why the court had stopped collecting fees.
To Scharf, if Newsom is concerned about helping low-income Californians, it makes sense to eliminate the fees. Reducing them — even by half — isn’t enough, he said.
“Most of the people impacted by this don’t have the capacity to pay $150,” he said, “just like they don’t have the capacity to pay $300.”