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California expunges debt from traffic-ticket late fees, but fee remains in place

Advocates will press ahead with a lawsuit challenging the fee automatically charged to those who miss a payment or deadline in a traffic infraction case.

(CN) — California will wipe out $500 million in late fee debt for unpaid traffic tickets, but lawmakers stopped short of barring courts from imposing the fee advocates call a “hidden tax” on the poor.

A “civil assessment fee” is an additional fine of up to $300 that applies to anyone who misses a deadline to appear in court or pay their parking and traffic tickets or other citations for minor infractions, like jaywalking.

It also helps fund the courts since the revenue funnels into 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.

A lawsuit brought by debt holders calls it a holdover from the era of mass incarceration, when the state needed a way to raise money to fund the increased criminal caseloads that resulted from a swiftly expanding prison population.

California legislators floated the idea of of eliminating the fee in this year’s budget, but were stymied by a lack of support from Governor Gavin Newsom. Newsom favored cutting the fee amount while keeping it as an accountability mechanism.

“The civil assessment is a tool the state and the courts use to hold individuals accountable when they don’t comply, and now the Ability to Pay program can reduce the fine and fee burden for indigent individuals,” H.D. Palmer with the Department of Finance said in an email. “Nevertheless, the current fee is too high and can be reduced to help all Californians.”

The budget passed this week lowers the fee to $100 and deposits the money into the state’s General Fund, preventing the courts from using it as a funding source. In return, the state gave the courts $10 million to offset the lost revenue.

“It restructures the funding and ensures that it goes to the state treasury. That was an important fix,” Zal Shroff, a staff attorney with The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and one of the lead attorneys in the lawsuit said Friday. “But now we’re going to see the courts impose the $100 fee in a blanket way by computer without a judge and without individualized decision making, which are the core components of our complaint initially. We’re trying to work with the Judicial Council to figure out if they’re willing to correct that statewide and correct the notices that don’t apprise people of what the fee is and how they can can fight it.”

A spokesperson for the Judicial Council said Friday that the budget "reflects many years of advocacy by the Chief Justice and the Judicial Council to change a system of fines and fees." He added that the lawmakers enacted legislation many years ago to replace bench warrants with civil assessments, and that the fees support an array of government services, not just the courts.

Shroff said while the debt forgiveness is a small victory, poor Californians will continue to suffer if the fee continues to be automatically charged. “It’s by no means a permanent fix,” he said. “If anything, it’s a delay in the harms. It’s still going to be harming people — just through the administrative system. If we can get them to disavow that system, then that’s great. But that remains to be seen.”

The Judicial Council agreed in May not to fight the lawsuit pending the outcome of budget negotiations. San Mateo County Superior Court, the initial defendant in the case, said it would stop collecting fee debt for the next six months.

But in June, when it became clear that the governor preferred to keep the fee in place, Shroff’s group sent 30 demand letters to courts around the state, asking them to do the same.

“I don’t think the courts care about imposing it at all at this point,” Shroff said. The Judicial Council were ready to let go of it. The main opposition was really the Department of Finance. We could not get through to them.”

But without an incentive to collect, it’s possible the courts could agree to stop charging the late fees. "They have no incentive to collect since they've gotten the backfill money they requested," Shroff said.

Shroff said that in the meantime, the lawsuit is still on. “This litigation is going to continue, of course. We made clear that there are many issues on the table that still need to be resolved. It remains to be seen whether they’re willing to work with us.”

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