By Rena Abdusalam
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, ACLU Foundation of Northern California, and Bay Area Legal Aid have announced the end of their lawsuit against the Judicial Council of California and San Mateo Superior Court that questioned the legality of excessive court late fees, also known as civil assessments.
They said the settlement erased the $550 million to $1 billion in late fees that were imposed by the courts illegally against mostly low-income people.
Encouraged by California in order to raise revenues, the fees were assessed by courts without judicial review, sufficient notice, or deliberation of circumstances, and burdened low-income Californians for the purpose of raising court revenues, but led to prejudiced decision-making that violated the rights of many working Californians, the groups said.
The organizations charged that in three years, San Mateo Superior Court charged late fees on 80,000 low-income residents and raised more than $9 million in revenues. Through computers and without a judge, the Court automatically assigned fees at the maximum amount in every case to accomplish their profit goals, violating California law.
“These unconscionable practices are now at an end thanks to a collaborative settlement process with the Judicial Council of California and the Court. In response to our litigation, the Judicial Council of California has rescinded its illegal guidance regarding civil assessments and issued new guidance to California trial courts.
“San Mateo Superior Court has announced an official policy against civil assessment late fees, and at least nine other court systems have followed suit by promptly discontinuing their unlawful late fee programs,” according to the plaintiff’s statement.
The civil rights law groups said the programs were canceled after the passage of AB-199, a new law that resulted from the organizations’ litigation and eliminated the charging of late fees for profit.
“We celebrate the beginning of the end for California’s modern-day poverty tax. The civil assessment fee has never served any legitimate purpose besides punishing low-income Californians for simply being poor,” stated the groups.
“The policy is rooted in the racist tough-on-crime policies of the 1990s, when it was created to address judicial funding shortages caused by the costs of mass incarceration,” said the organizations. “It is a needless and regressive tax that extracted millions of dollars annually—mostly from low-income and Black and Brown Californians.”
They added, “This revenue-generation scheme was particularly egregious given that California law already ensures that the government can collect from supposed ‘scofflaws’ who can actually afford to pay their tickets through ordinary debt collection measures. In other words, civil assessments have only ever been about raising court revenue.”
“Courts that fail to eliminate their unlawful fee schemes will risk future legal challenges and may pay the price. In settlement for this case, the Judicial Council of California paid $80,000 in plaintiffs’ legal fees,” said the ACLU, LCCR and Bay Area Legal Aid.
“The sun is finally setting on California’s regressive taxation of working Californians for profit,” Senior Staff Attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF), Zal. K Shroff said.
Schroff added, “We celebrate these major steps toward economic justice at the Judicial Council and the Council’s recognition of the profound harm that fines and fees needlessly visit on low-income Californians. Our litigation has made clear to trial courts that even they are not above the law.”
“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, Director of Program and Advocacy at Bay Area Legal Aid.
“This win is one step closer to California confronting the racialized impact of traffic stops,” said Brandon Greene, Racial and Economic Justice Program Director at the ACLU of Northern California.
Greene added, “For years, our coalitions have been making the clear case that the economic devastation wrought by California’s administrative fines and fees is both morally unjust and just bad fiscal policy. We will continue to fight until these and all other unnecessarily punitive fees are fully eliminated and ultimately repealed by the California Legislature.”
Clients involved in the settlement case released the following statements:
“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. No one deserves to endure this kind of punishment, especially not low-income Californians who are already struggling to survive. I am overjoyed by the outcome,” Lorena Gonzales Baes, one of the plaintiffs involved in the settlement case.
“No one should ever be forced into unjust and illegitimate debt. I am ecstatic to see that California is on a path to ending all of its wealth extraction schemes while unburdening thousands of families of court debt. This is a major step in ending the generational cycle of poverty and incarceration and will allow communities like mine to breathe a little easier,” said Manuel Galindo, Carceral Debt Organizer, Debt Collective.
“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,” said Katrina Logan, Executive Director, Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto.