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California court sued for charging ‘hidden tax’ on the poor

A lawsuit says San Mateo Superior Court is unconstitutionally raising revenue by automatically charging people $300 every time they miss a payment or deadline in a traffic infraction case.

(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.”

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In fiscal year 2019-20, civil assessments generated $96.9 million in revenue for California courts, according to documents the LCCR received from the Judicial Council through a public records request.

Shroff said the method of funding the courts through fines and fees originated in the 1990s, when California enacted its three strikes law and caused judicial case loads to soar. “Their budgets could not keep up,” Shroff said. Rather than fund the courts adequately and sustainably, he continued, the Legislature instructed the courts to “upcharge” people every time they missed a payment or deadline.

“The courts depend on that money,” Shroff said.

But this funding scheme has become increasingly problematic for the courts. With the support of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Newsom and his predecessor Jerry Brown have sought to do away with fines and fees in favor of more stable funding. For the past four years, Brown and Newsom have allocated millions of taxpayer dollars to backfilling revenue from lost fines and fees, including $50 million for fiscal year 2022-2023 alone. Newsom has also proposed cutting the civil assessment fee in half, from $300 to $150.

"For the last several years, we’ve been concerned about how fines and fees unfairly penalize the poor,” Cantil-Sakauye told judges at a Judicial Council meeting in 2017, where she floated an idea to move traffic cases out of criminal court.

The council has also taken steps to fund a pilot program that would allow people to apply to have their fines and fees reduced based on their ability to pay.

The move toward doing away with civil assessments has also gotten some traction in the legislature, with Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, introducing Senate Bill 586, the "Finish the Fees Act,” last year. But the bill was gutted to remove provisions eliminating civil assessments and other criminal fines.

When reached for comment on Thursday, a spokesperson for the Judicial Council said it couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

Shroff said many courts impose civil assessments but that San Mateo is “one of the worst offenders.”

"We have homed in on San Mateo as one of the most egregious, but many counties are participating in this practice in a way that violates the law," he said, noting that Sacramento Superior Court rescinded its standing order on civil assessments after receiving a letter from the LCCR.

While people can contest the $300 charge, Shroff said it isn’t easy, and San Mateo Superior Court does not inform people of how they can do so.

“The notices are complicated and it’s not clear from the notice how you can challenge this $300 fee. It doesn't tell people they can come into court and explain why they weren't able to pay it,” he said, adding that of 80,000 cases over the past three years, only 2,000 have been challenged and the fines reduced.

“An important part of this lawsuit is to educate people on how this system works, who it benefits and why,” Shroff said.

Galindo said most people he’s spoken with don’t understand their rights, and many believe they’ll be arrested for failing to pay.

“For people who have reentered society and have carceral debt, when they have these civil assessments they are quick to pay them and are afraid that if they don't they could end up re-incarcerated. I’ve met people who would rather pay their fines and fees than eat a decent meal,” he said.

The lawsuit seeks a court order barring the San Mateo Superior Court from charging and collecting civil assessments without informing people of their constitutional right to challenge the fees.

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