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Critics of traffic ticket late fees tout end of discrimination suit

A deal with San Mateo follows legislation that bars California courts from relying on late fees as revenue and erases millions of dollars in consumer debt.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Five months after it agreed to stop charging drivers $300 fines when they pay traffic tickets late, the San Mateo Superior Court has reached a settlement with legal groups that said the practice disproportionately affected people of color in the Bay Area.

“We celebrate these major steps toward economic justice at the Judicial Council and the council’s recognition of the profound harms that fines and fees needlessly visit on low-income Californians,” Zal K. Shroff, an attorney with of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, said in a statement Tuesday. “Our litigation has made clear to trial courts that even they are not above the law.” 

While California had encouraged courts to use such assessments as a means of raising revenues, Shroff's group, joined by the ACLU Foundation of Northern California and Bay Area Legal Aid, framed them as a “hidden tax” on the poor and vulnerable. They filed suit over the fines last year against the court in San Mateo and the policymaking body for the California court system, the Judicial Council of California.

In the last three years, according to an amended version of the complaint from May, late fees on traffic tickets and other citations for minor infractions brought the San Mateo Superior Court more than $9 million, of which it was able to keep $3.4 million.

The notice of resolution filed Tuesday comes nearly a year after the county ended its role as the court's contracted collections agent in May, and followed by a stipulated agreement from the court this past November to stop charging hidden fees.

“Debt from civil assessment fees pushed my family deeper into poverty and made it incredibly difficult for me to travel to work, provide for my children and put food on the table,” one client, Lorena Gonzales Baes, said in a statement made public with the settlement. "No one deserves to endure this kind of punishment, especially not low-income Californians who are already struggling to survive."

In touting the settlement, the groups note that at least nine other court systems have also discontinued late fee programs after the Judicial Council rescinded its guidance regarding civil assessments and issued new guidance to California trial courts.

“The fact that courts across California are starting to abandon their civil assessment practices is monumental: It will unburden thousands of low-income people — disproportionately from Black and Brown communities — who have been stuck in a cycle of poverty due to their inability to pay these unlawfully imposed court debts,” said Ariella Hyman, a program director with Bay Area Legal Aid. 

Senate Bill 199, which took effect July 1, eliminated millions of dollars in outstanding civil assessments debt, reduced the civil assessment to a maximum of $100 and secured funding for California courts while prohibiting them from relying on late fees as a source of revenue.

Katrina Logan, executive director of Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto, said there is more work to do.

"This is a huge step in the right direction, but we need all of the trial courts to stop imposing civil assessments and garnering court revenue on the backs of low-income people of color,” Logan said of the settlement.

Opponents of the civil assessment fee is rooted in racist, tough-on-crime policies and has never served any legitimate purpose but to punish low-income Californians for simply being poor.

“This win is one step closer to California confronting the racialized impact of traffic stops,” said Brandon Greene, program director at ACLU of Northern California. “We will continue to fight until these and all other unnecessarily punitive fees are fully eliminated and ultimately repealed by the California Legislature.”

The Judicial Council is paying $80,000 in legal fees. In return, their challengers say all claims are resolved with prejudice.

In a phone interview, Shroff with the Lawyers' Committee attributed the outcome to momentum that he says the council is tapping into, moving away from the “regressive tax” system of fines and fees.

Although a dismissal hearing is scheduled in July, Shroff said the judge is more likely to immediately dismiss the action at their request without a hearing.

Attorneys representing San Mateo County and the Judicial Council did not respond to a request for comment by press time. 

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Categories / Civil Rights, Courts, Government, Regional

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