Today, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Bay Area Legal Aid, and Fenwick & West LLP filed a lawsuit challenging San Mateo County Superior Court’s unlawful practice of automatically imposing a $300 charge every time an individual misses a payment or court deadline in their traffic infraction case.
These fines, called civil assessments, disproportionately impact unhoused people due to the lack of stable mailing addresses, and Black and Brown people who, because of the severe racial disparities in which individuals are subject to traffic stops, are far more likely to end up in traffic court. In San Mateo County, police pull over Black drivers twice as often as white drivers.
This racially and economically unjust and unlawful practice has become deeply ingrained in our court systems, which have come to rely on the revenue stream from civil assessments. It comes at the cost of increased economic instability for low-income defendants. According to BayLegal Senior Litigation Counsel Fawn Jade Korr: “Government debt—including traffic court debt—is one of the many barriers to economic security for Californians struggling to pay for their basic needs. Wage garnishment to pay traffic court debt can be very destabilizing. Preserving employment income is key to preventing long-term homelessness and financial instability that can negatively impact healthcare and family security.”
Media coverage of this case:
San Mateo County’s ‘hidden’ $300 fees inflate costs of small traffic violations, lawsuit says (SF Chronicle, 1/27/2022)
- Lawsuit claims San Mateo County court charges illegal late fees (The Mercury News, 1/27/2022)
San Mateo County Superior Court sued over $300 late fee (Climate Magazine, 1/27/2022)