“California ‘Poverty Penalty’ Fee Disproportionately Impacts Poor and Non-White Residents, Report Finds” — by Bob Eglko for/of The San Francisco Chronicle

A California Highway Patrol officer stops a motorist for speeding along Interstate 405 on April 23, 2020, in Westminster, Calif. California charges a fee of up to $300 to people who miss deadlines for paying traffic tickets and other fines, though the fees often go uncollected, a new report found.

“California charges a fee of up to $300 to people who miss deadlines for paying traffic tickets and other fines — a “poverty penalty” that disproportionately affects poor and non-white people, creates conflicts of interest for judges, and is seldom actually collected, civil rights advocates said in a new report Wednesday.

“We must repeal civil assessments. They are a part of an ineffective and punitive system to fund our court system by extracting wealth from Black and Brown Californians,” said Elisa Della-Piana of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, a contributor to the report by the Debt Free California Justice Coalition.

The report said at least 300,000 people are assessed the fees each year, “primarily as a punishment for not paying with money they do not have.” More than 80% of the fees are assessed for nonpayment of fines for traffic tickets or infractions. Although county courts can charge lesser fees, 88% of them assess the maximum $300, the study said.

Only a fraction of the fees are collected, the report said — 13.5% in San Francisco and 8% in Humboldt County. Statewide, it said, courts received $96 million in 2019-20 and, after expenses, wound up with $54 million, “a substantial portion of many courts’ annual budgets.”

Some of the same advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and Bay Area Legal Aid, described the court funding as a judicial conflict of interest in a lawsuit in January challenging the fees charged by courts in San Mateo County.

The report cited other studies, such as a January 2021 report by a state government panel, finding that Black and Latino drivers are far more likely than whites to be given tickets rather than warnings when stopped by police.

“These assessments not only don’t work, they also disproportionately harm Black and Brown Californians, because they’re more likely to be targeted for minor traffic violations,” state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said in a statement.

The report said California’s late-payment fees are far higher than those in most other states — a maximum of $30 in Delaware, for example. Someone who runs a red light in California and fails to pay the ticket on time can be charged $538 in fines and fees in California, compared with $234 in Texas and $112 in New Hampshire, the report said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed state budget for 2022-23 would reduce the maximum late-payment fee from $300 to $150. State lawmakers have eliminated 40 fees related to various crimes in the past two years, but blocked legislation, SB586 by Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena (Los Angeles County), that in its original form would have abolished the fees for missing payment deadlines.

The state Judicial Council administers the fees and oversees the court system. Peter Allen, a council spokesperson, said in response to the report that those who missed payment deadlines had been subject to arrest warrants before the Legislature authorized the fees, which “support important government services.”

“Since then, we’ve all seen the disparate impact on low-income Californians,” Allen said. “The council continues to advocate for reducing fines and fees that unfairly impact some of the most vulnerable, and we’ve been successful, for example, in passing legislation that’s targeted to providing relief for low-income drivers.”

The authors of the report said they contacted more than 200 people who had been issued recent traffic citations. Of those, 73% did not know they could be charged up to $300 for failing to pay their fine by a court deadline, and 68% said they could not afford to pay such a fee, the report said.

It described the case of a woman who got traffic tickets in 2009 carrying several hundred dollars in fines that she could not afford while caring for a child and an ailing grandmother. For the next 12 years, she was in debt with $1,200 in missed-payment fees, and had her license suspended by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Her county, not identified in the report, eventually reduced its court fees for low-income people to amounts based on their ability to pay, a practice some other counties have also adopted, but the woman still owes $600.

The report said there are nonpunitive alternatives that would be at least as effective as the fees in getting people to pay their fines, such as text-message reminders from the court. And it said California should use its taxpayer-funded budget to fund the judicial system, instead of fees with a built-in conflict of interest.”

Credit: Bob Eglko. Publication: The San Francisco Chronicle. Published: March 3rd 2022. Source Link: https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/amp/California-poverty-penalty-fee-16972602.php

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