(CN) — California’s courts are charging the state’s poorest residents millions of dollars in hidden fees for unpaid traffic tickets and missed response deadlines, creating a conflict of interest that violates constitutional due process, a civil rights group claims in state court.
“We are funding the courts on the backs of the poorest people,” said Manuel Galindo, an organizer with the nonprofit Debt Collective, a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed Thursday against San Mateo Superior Court challenging its practice of automatically imposing a $300 “civil assessment” charge every time someone misses a payment or deadline in a traffic case.
For people barely scraping by in the outrageously expensive Bay Area, a $300 fine can be ruinous. Galindo knows this from personal experience.
“I was just out of college and my uncle had gifted me a car. I had zero dollars to my name, but I had to get the car registered. The car broke down and in the time it took me to save that, the registration had expired. Then I was given a ticket for having an unregistered car parked on a public road.”
By the time he was able to save to have the car registered, the price had ballooned to $175. Then he found out that the court had tacked on a $300 civil assessment.
"I didn't know civil assessments were a thing. I ended up having to borrow money from my dad and uncle to pay for it,” he said.
The lawsuit describes the fee as a “hidden tax” the court automatically uses as a form of punishing people who miss the deadline to respond or pay their traffic tickets or other citations for minor infractions.
It also helps fund the courts — as revenue from civil assessments are placed in the Trial Court Trust Fund, a pot of money from which operating dollars are allocated to the courts by the Judicial Council, the policymaking body for the California court system.
The San Mateo Superior Court has raised more than $9 million in the last three years, keeping $3.4 million for itself, the lawsuit says.
“The court is charging people who are the least likely to be able to pay. And the superior court is personally invested in collecting the money. That's where the real constitutional problem arises. There's a due process conflict of interest when the court is incentivized to collect against these folks,” said Zal Shroff, senior racial justice attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, who represents the Debt Collective.
He also represents Anthony McCree, an Alameda County man who was cited for fare evasion in April 2019 while on his way to a job interview. McCree, who struggles with housing instability, could not be reached for comment Thursday, but he told the San Francisco Chronicle that he had used the emergency exit gate at the SFO airport BART station to use the add fare machine. He was detained by a police officer who let him go without a citation.
According to the lawsuit, McCree first heard about his outstanding citation in San Mateo County in August 2021. He had finally found a place to live when he started receiving collections letters indicating that he owed the court $860 inclusive of the $300 civil assessment. The lawsuit says he’s “struggling to find the money to make payments” and is at risk of losing his housing.
“I would assume what happened was the officer did not give him the citation onsite and it went to some address that he didn't live at because he's unhoused,” Shroff said. “Just imagine the first moment in housing where he's back on his feet and he has $860 in fees. It has been inordinately stressful for him and he still struggles with speaking to people about it. He’s getting collections notices three years down the line.”