Courts rely on late fees to fund their operations, but they may soon have to find another source

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Orion Hurst was returning from Ramona to his Lemon Grove home in 2017 when he was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol. He quickly pleaded guilty to a traffic ticket for not having a valid registration.

A student at Grossmont College at the time, Hurst could not afford the one-shot $500 penalty. He landed jobs as a gig worker, delivering food for a few apps, but earned near minimum wage after accounting for gas and repairs to his 15-year-old car.

He opted for a monthly payment plan instead. But after missing just one payment, he was hit with a $300 late fee. It took Hurst two years to pay off the debt, and only because he was able to rack up more hours behind the wheel.

“It seemed like it took forever,” he said.

Late fees, otherwise known as civil assessments, are especially hard on people like Hurst who are already struggling, but they’ve helped fund trial courts across the state. . So far: This source of funding is about to disappear.

For decades, the California Judicial Court, the regulatory arm of the state court system, has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in civil assessments stemming from local traffic cases. Over the past three fiscal years, the San Diego County Superior Court has received some of the highest allocations in the state, totaling more than $26.5 million, or between three and five percent of the annual budget.

The architects of civil assessments have long described this funding model as a way to incentivize people to pay their underlying ticket or face monetary consequences. But advocates argue that the civil assessments are an illegal, regressive tax that pushes low-income people deeper into poverty. Few are even aware that they can challenge these charges.

Hurst knew he could have cited financial hardship, as he had read the fine print, but he figured it wasn’t worth it. “I thought it would just be easier to afford,” he said.

State lawmakers have proposed that civil assessments be eliminated and the associated debt canceled, and they are still in negotiations with Governor Gavin Newsom over California’s next budget. A deal could be announced as early as Friday.

For years, advocates have pushed for the elimination of civil assessments, but the proposal gained momentum earlier this year when a coalition of nonprofit debtors and lawyers sued San Mateo County Superior Court. They alleged judges indiscriminately imposed late fees of $300 — the maximum — in traffic cases not as a deterrent but as a way to generate revenue. The lawsuit argues that the court is now dependent on these funds, which poses a conflict.

The Superior Court building / Photo by Kinsee Morlan

“An accused before a judge is supposed to trust that the judge will come to a decision impartially and not for personal gain,” Rio Scharf, an attorney with the Bay Area Civil Rights Lawyers Committee, told me. San Francisco. . “Yet these funds come from the poorest of the poor and contribute to the salary of the judge. The constitutional problem at issue here could not be more glaring.

In a statement, the San Diego County Superior Court said its court officers did not consistently apply the maximum civil rating in every case and disagreed that civil ratings created a conflict. of interests. Judges’ salaries, the court wrote, are determined by a government codewhich ties their salary to the average of what state employees earn, and traffic division commissioners receive a fixed percentage of this amount.

Scharf and others have traced the origin of this funding model to California’s tough-on-crime policies of the 1990s, which brought more people into the criminal justice system and put financial pressure on courts of first instance. San Diego helped launch civilian appraisals as a revenue-generating tool.

In 1996, a public safety committee of the Assembly vaunted analysis The San Diego County Superior Court’s ability to raise $4.2 million in a single year. Trial courts at the time were only allowed to impose civil assessments if a defendant failed to appear in court, but San Diego’s aggressive approach gave state lawmakers ideas on how to solve their impending crisis in the criminal justice system without proposing new taxes.

Thanks in part to the testimony of a municipal court administrator in El Cajon, the legislature authorized trial courts across the state to impose civil assessments on defendants who had also failed to pay their tickets, and not just didn’t show up. This extended authorityaccording to the committee’s analysis, would improve the court’s ability to collect fees and “relieve overcrowding in local jails” rather than issue an arrest warrant.

It may have helped them pay the bills to run an ever-growing justice system, but it came at a cost to the people on the ground. People involved in trafficking cases don’t usually hire lawyers and don’t always get notice when they’ve missed a payment or deadline. Unpaid fees are returned to the municipal government or, in the case of San Diego, private collection agents. These costs can spiral out of control and cause the state to garnish that person’s wages.

These fees tend to be higher in california than other states and disproportionately affects people of color, who are more likely to be stopped by police while driving. But these fees are also difficult to collect. As of last year, the San Diego County Superior Court valued that he still owed $223 million in civil assessments.

For its part, the Judicial Council has recognized that the current funding model creates at least a “perceived conflict of interest” and is fundamentally unsustainable because traffic violations fluctuate on a yearly basis. The number of traffic violations in San Diego County has been on a downward trend in recent years, from around 136,000 in fiscal year 2014-15 to around 66,500 in fiscal year 2019 -20.

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye also expressed concern in a speech to legislators in 2013 that the state judiciary was becoming “a fee-paying institution” that disproportionately affected low-income people. In response to the lawsuit, the San Mateo County Superior Court agreed to stop collecting civil assessments for six months. The decision was announced just as lawyers for the debtors added the Judicial Council to their initial complaint.

As they all wait to see how the next budget plays out, the attorneys have effectively warned the San Diego County Superior Court that a similar litigation is pending here. In a June 10 letter, they asked law enforcement to follow San Mateo’s lead and gave San Diego until the end of the month to come up with a plan to end civil assessments.

In response, the San Diego County Superior Court told Voice of San Diego that it had made no changes to its civil assessment policy, but the Judicial Council is closely monitoring the budget discussion in Sacramento and supports a legislative resolution.

Right now, California is sitting on a surplus of nearly $100 billion. It’s still unclear, however, whether the governor will use some of that money to eliminate civil assessments or cancel existing debt. Last year, the governor signed a bill eliminate other administrative costsbut this did not include late fees in traffic cases.

This time, Newsom signaled that he was only willing to cut traffic delay fees in halfbut supporters do not consider his compromise to be of much value.

“People are going to be further impoverished, and they have to decide whether to use their limited resources to feed and shelter their families or pay the civil assessment,” said Mitchelle Woodson, executive director and general counsel of the nonprofit. nonprofit Think Dignity. . “This [fee] might as well be $1,000 because they still won’t be able to afford it.

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