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PRESS RELEASE: Advocates call on Riverside County Superior Court to stop civil assessments on unresolved traffic tickets

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Riverside County’s practice of automatically adding up to $600 when a driver misses court or doesn’t pay a ticket violates state law and constitutional protections.

SAN FRANCISCO — Riverside County Superior Court is illegally adding hundreds of dollars in civil assessments to unresolved traffic tickets, according to a demand letter sent by Western Center on Law & Poverty and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Riverside County’s traffic court automatically adds multiple $300 civil assessments on to California’s already expensive traffic tickets, without considering the circumstances of individual cases as state law requires. The oversized civil assessments are an excessive fine under the state and U.S. Constitutions, adding $600 to a $50 or $100 base fine. The advocates also say the court receiving income from these fees creates a conflict of interest.

“Civil assessments are inequitable and exacerbate wealth extraction from overpoliced Black and brown communities,” said Adrienna Wong, attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. “What’s more, because the money from civil assessments goes into the state Trial Court Trust Fund, courts have an interest in imposing more and larger civil assessments. Instead of doubling down on a structure that rewards courts for imposing civil assessments and deprives drivers of impartial decision makers, California could fund courts directly.”

More often than not, the failure to resolve a traffic ticket is the result of poverty, including the inability to pay and lack of access to legal assistance. Often, a driver’s failure to come to court or pay their ticket stems from transportation barriers, insufficient childcare, inflexible work schedules, disability, or homelessness.

“California’s traffic ticket system is broken,” says Rebecca Miller, a senior litigator for Western Center on Law & Poverty. “Despite multiple amnesty programs and other efforts to provide relief to drivers with low incomes, there are still billions of dollars in unpaid traffic debt. Adding hundreds of dollars to unresolved traffic tickets does not make people pay their tickets; these failed policies make it harder for people to work and create more obstacles for Californians trying to pull their families out of poverty.”

Civil assessments punish those who face added barriers to payment or court appearance, thus widening inequality and disproportionately targeting people with low incomes, people of color, people with unstable housing, and people with disabilities. This is exacerbated by the economic devastation of the pandemic, which has fallen harder on Californians with low incomes and people of color.

The demand letter sent to Riverside Superior Court describes how its traffic court policies are stricter than what state law provides. For example, the traffic court only allows drivers 10 days to ask the court to excuse their non-appearance or non-payment, but state law provides 20.

Additionally, Riverside traffic court’s forms artificially restrict the reasons someone may be excused for not coming to court on a ticket by only providing check boxes for medical incapacitation/hospitalization, incarceration, and military orders.[1] State law says that a driver may be excused for “good cause” and does not limit it to those three categories.

Advocates are asking the Riverside court to stop imposing civil assessments, and to bring its policies into compliance with state and federal law. Change may also come at the state level, because the Legislature’s proposed budget would repeal civil assessments and increase direct funding to the courts.

Contact: Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org

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[1] Riverside Superior Court Form # RI-OTS38 [Rev. 10/13/17].

The Fight for Fair Traffic Laws Continues in California, With Positive New Developments  

Since 2016, Western Center has been fighting to end driver’s license suspensions for people who can’t afford to pay California’s high traffic fines, or don’t have the ability or means to go to court to resolve their ticket. In a state like California, where driving is often the only option for getting to work, taking kids to school, and shopping or visiting the doctor, license suspensions have a particularly negative impact on people already experiencing poverty. Suspensions for failing to pay or appear in court for a ticket also exacerbate racial inequities, because Black and Latinx drivers are more likely to be pulled over and as a result are disproportionately impacted by license suspensions.

These types of suspensions have very little to do with keeping roads safe — state laws provide other ways to suspend driver’s licenses for reckless and dangerous driving. Failure-to-pay (FTP) and failure-to-appear (FTA) suspensions are about debt collection — coercing drivers to pay their tickets. But for Californians who can’t afford their tickets, suspensions have a perverse effect, making it harder to pay and care for their families, often leading to further fines and mounting debt, and the risk of criminal prosecution and having their vehicle impounded.

Fortunately, since 2016 we’ve made inroads to limit these non-safety related suspensions; failure-to-pay suspensions were outlawed in California in 2017, and failure-to-appear suspensions were limited by a Court of Appeal decision in June 2020.  But there is still work to do.  Most counties still use a person’s failure-to-appear in court — which is often tied to a person’s financial situation — to suspend licenses.

The California Vehicle Code allows traffic courts to send a notice to the DMV when a driver does not appear in court or pay their traffic fine by the ticket’s deadline. In turn, the DMV is required to suspend the driver’s license after one FTA notice (in some cases two, depending on the underlying violation). FTA license suspensions often result from a driver’s inability to pay their ticket by the payment deadline, or to get to court by the deadline because of transportation problems or work conflicts. See the Driving Toward Justice report for more details.

Unfortunately, some courts misuse FTA suspensions by refusing to release an FTA license suspension until a driver pays their citation in full. Other courts only allow “one-way” due process by taking advantage of FTA suspensions, but only allowing a driver to appear to plead guilty in order to lift the suspension. The harm caused by FTA suspensions is even more severe, because counties have varying and unpublished practices that make it difficult for low-income drivers to navigate and resolve their tickets, and because counties have yet to fully embrace a 2017 court rule that requires them to consider a driver’s financial circumstances when setting the fine owed.

Western Center and advocates around the state continue to fight for fair traffic laws. We regularly hear from drivers about the impact these suspensions have on their lives, including lost employment opportunities or spiraling debt that leads to a misdemeanor charge for driving on a suspended license. We encourage drivers to speak up about the real life effects of California’s failure-to-appear suspensions and share their thoughts for how the system should be reformed to meet the needs of all Californians. If you have a story you would like to share, please send me an email. Here are a few recent developments:

Issues in Marin County

In 2017, Governor Brown eliminated suspensions based on a driver’s failure to pay their ticket, but Marin County traffic court and others continued to use failure-to-appear suspensions as a collection tool in a broader way than what’s permitted by the Vehicle Code. Even after a driver appeared in court on a traffic ticket or plead guilty by filing a plea form, Marin traffic court’s policy was not to release a failure-to-appear suspension until the ticket was paid in full, which is contrary to what the vehicle code allows, and undermines the Governor/Legislature’s elimination of failure-to-pay suspensions. Essentially, Marin was using failure-to-appears as prohibited failure-to-pays to coerce drivers to pay tickets.

In February of this year, Western Center and Bay Area Legal Aid sent a letter to the Marin County Superior Court requesting it stop the practice; Marin is now agreeing to do so, though, it is unclear how the process will unfold and how they will make sure the public and impacted drivers know about the change in policy. Marin is also agreeing to review its practices to make sure it is not misusing the FTA suspension tool by asking the DMV to suspend a license after a single FTA when the Vehicle Code requires two.

This example in Marin is emblematic of problems we see statewide: traffic court procedures vary significantly county by county, and even courthouse by courthouse within a county. Variations in policies and practices are not clearly communicated to the public through the traffic court website or forms, and the lack of transparency results in traffic court practices that do not comply with the Vehicle Code or recent changes to California Rules of Court that allow drivers to ask for a reduction in their traffic fines based on their financial circumstances. The drivers that are harmed by these discrepancies are overwhelmingly low-income drivers who can’t just write a check or use a credit card when they get a ticket. We hope Marin’s traffic court will take a different approach by adopting a written policy that will be available to the public online and made clear on relevant traffic forms so drivers with low-incomes can resolve their tickets and avoid unjust license suspensions.

Other traffic courts could and should benefit from Marin’s example, using it to check their own processes to ensure compliance with the Vehicle Code. Aside from the issues Marin has agreed to address, advocates see problems in traffic courts throughout the state where drivers are not able to appear in court after the appearance date has passed on an unadjudicated ticket to clear an FTA suspension, unless they agree to plead guilty. This one-way due process is clearly illegal: either the court has already found the person guilty, in which case there should not be a failure to appear hold/suspension, or the driver should be able to appear in court to contest the ticket. Advocates also see enormous variation and questionable practice when drivers ask the court to reduce their traffic fines based on their financial circumstance. In many courts, Californians with incomes low enough to qualify them for CalFresh or Medi-Cal have their requests to reduce traffic fines rejected, despite a Judicial Council pilot project that recommends drivers receiving public benefits have their traffic fines reduced by 50%.

Hernandez v. California Department of Motor Vehicles

Hernandez v. CA DMV was filed in 2016 and challenged driver’s license suspensions when a driver did not pay their ticket or appear in court. The failure-to-pay issues were resolved in 2018 by a combination of legislative change and litigation — drivers no longer have their license suspended for unpaid traffic tickets in California. This summer, Western Center and our partners at Bay Area Legal Aid, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights SF, ACLU of Northern California, USC Gould School of Law Access to Justice Practicum, and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP won a victory in the Court of Appeal on the remaining issue regarding what type of notice a traffic court has to send the DMV to suspend a driver’s license for a failure to appear. The court sided with Western Center and our partners, finding that the traffic court has to send a notice that alleges the failure-to-appear was willful. This result will still require monitoring, since the determination of when a failure-to-appear is  “willful” may vary by judge or county. There is also concern about whether courts have adequate procedures to consider information that would suggest a failure-to-appear was not willful, including communications with drivers that they were unable to appear or pay their ticket by the deadline.

Last month, we mediated a final resolution in this case. The DMV agreed to a stipulated judgment as to how the Court of Appeal decision will be implemented, which means thousands of drivers will have their licenses reinstated, and that going forward, the DMV will not suspend a license unless the traffic court sends the required notice that the failure to appear was willful. The next step will be advocacy to make sure traffic courts have fair procedures to determine whether such a notice should be sent when a driver fails to appear because of financial, work, family or other excusable reasons.

Dismissed suspended license charges

The Court of Appeal’s June 2020 decision in Hernandez has opened the conversation about the policy wisdom of misdemeanor charges for driving on a suspended license, particularly when the underlying suspension is based on a failure-to-appear that stemmed from poverty. In the wake of the Hernandez decision, courts have dismissed charges for driving on a suspended license – some across the board and some just in cases where the suspension is based on a faulty notice, as we argued in the Court of Appeal. The next steps are to continue to challenge these suspensions (and the resultant misdemeanor charges), including litigation/administrative advocacy for how traffic courts use failure to appears, and pushing to reduce the penalties for driving on a suspended license where the suspension is based on an FTA.

 

Fee Abolition: Ignoring the Law in Riverside County

“Unfortunately, no one tracks fee burden by racial demographic… Because Black and Latinx youth were over punished, they also faced higher fee burdens.” -Courtney McKinney, Director of Communications with the Western Center on Law and Poverty

https://blackvoicenews.com/2020/11/23/fee-abolition-ignoring-the-law-in-riverside-county/

PRESS RELEASE: Governor Signs Historic Bill Repealing Unjust Criminal Fees in California, Providing Much Needed Relief to Californians 

***Western Center is part of the Debt Free Justice Coalition, which worked to achieve the historic, first in the country victory to end state law authorizing specified criminal justice fees, resulting in the repeal of 23 criminal justice fees and expunging an estimated $16 Billion in outstanding debt.***

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Governor Signs Historic Bill Repealing Unjust Criminal Fees in California, Providing Much Needed Relief to Californians

SACRAMENTO, CA—Last Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 1869, making California the first state in the country to repeal administrative fees in the criminal system. This historic reform will reduce the harm caused by court-imposed debt and strengthen the economic security of low-income communities of color.

AB 1869 permanently ends the assessment and collection of 23 administrative fees in the criminal system effective July 1, 2021. The bill also writes off all outstanding fee debt. The Policy Advocacy Clinic at Berkeley Law estimates that AB 1869 will relieve Californians of over $16 billion in outstanding criminal fee debt, the vast majority of which is uncollectible because people cannot afford to pay.

According to Senate Budget Chair Senator Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles): “For too long, the imposition of fees by our courts has taken away much-needed resources from people and perpetuated historic forms of racialized wealth extraction. By eliminating these criminal administrative fees, we can put money back in the pockets of Black and Latinx people and invest in the public health and safety of all communities.”

Currently, California law permits counties to charge people administrative fees related to their legal representation, probation, and incarceration. These fees often add up to thousands of dollars for a single person and pose significant barriers to reentry. Unpaid fees can be enforced via wage garnishment, bank levy, and tax refund intercept.

“As a public defender, it is painful to watch clients be saddled with fees, knowing that they won’t be able to pay,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju, whose office is part of Debt Free Justice California. “The criminal legal system disrupts people’s lives and families in so many ways that adding financial penalties sets people up for failure when we should be setting them up for future success. By eliminating fees, we’re paving the way to more resilient communities.”

Angelique Evans, an organizer with A New Way of Life, shared her experience: “Almost immediately after being released from prison, Los Angeles County told me that I owed over $3,000 in administrative fees. As a mother, I wanted to prioritize taking care of my son and getting back on my feet. The fees held me back, both emotionally and financially. This bill will allow people returning home to focus on what matters most—rebuilding our families and lives.”

AB 1869 builds on years of organizing and advocacy by Debt Free Justice California. Research by the coalition shows that imposing fees on people in the criminal system is high pain because it leaves many with insurmountable debt, and low gain because counties net little, if any, revenue from these fees. Due to over-policing and racial bias in the system, the burden of fees falls disproportionately on Black and Latinx communities.

Out of concern for racial and economic justice, legality, and costs, four counties—San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, and Los Angeles stopped charging some discretionary fees over the last few years. AB 1869 brings debt-free justice to all Californians across the state.

Jhumpa Bhattacharya, Vice President of the Insight Center for Community and Economic Development and member of Debt Free Justice California, said: “We joined together as a coalition to think bigger, broader, and more critically about how anti-Blackness, xenophobia and sexism underpin the rules of our economy, the criminal system and policing. The imposition of criminal fees was not simply a matter of good or bad fiscal policy, but a reflection of multiple systems of entrenched racism that have led to targeted policing and over-incarceration of Black and Brown communities, consequently widening racial and gender wealth inequality.”

The passage of AB 1869 will help California begin the process of reinvesting in communities and disinvesting from our carceral system.

CONTACTS:
Jhumpa Bhattacharya, Vice President of Programs and Strategy Clinical Supervising Attorney, Insight Center for Community Economic Development, 510-466-1711, jhumpa[at]insightcced.org

Stephanie Campos-Bui, UC Berkeley School of Law Policy Advocacy Clinic, 760-349-6631, scamposbui[at]law.berkeley.edu

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Debt Free Justice California is a multi-regional, California-based coalition focused on putting a stop to the unfair ways the criminal system drains wealth from vulnerable communities. The coalition is comprised of legal advocates, policy experts, and most importantly, movement building organizations led by impacted people. For more information, visit: https://ebclc.org/cadebtjustice/about/.

Historic Bill Decreases Juvenile Legal Fees that Target Low Income Families of Color

“The Western Center on Law & Poverty also helped in co-sponsoring the creation of SB 1290.

Lead co-sponsor Jessica Bartholow of Western Center on Law & Poverty said, “Signing this bill will be an important step toward divesting community resources away from the carceral system and keeping those dollars in the hands of families in their communities where they are desperately needed right now.”

https://www.davisvanguard.org/2020/08/historic-bill-decreases-juvenile-legal-fees-that-target-low-income-families-of-color/

PRESS RELEASE: Broad-Based Coalition Calls On Governor To Sign Historic Bill To End Racially Discriminatory Wealth Extraction Through The Juvenile Legal System

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SACRAMENTO— The California Legislature has sent Governor Gavin Newsom Senate Bill 1290 (SB 1290), a bipartisan juvenile justice reform bill that will outlaw the collection of fees that disproportionately extract wealth from low-income, Black and Latinx families. More than 60 groups across the state have called for the Governor to sign the historic bill.

According to Senate co-author Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), “SB 1290 will end the harmful, costly, and frequently unlawful practice of collecting administrative fees from families with youth in the juvenile system and young adults. These fees cause devastating and lasting harm to low-income families, while providing little net revenue for counties.”

SB 1290 builds on the progress made by SB 190, which abolished the assessment of new juvenile fees in 2018. Forty-three counties have since forgiven more than $345 million in outstanding juvenile fees statewide. However, 15 counties continue to pursue almost $15 million from youth and their families.

“We abolished these fees because they are regressive, racially discriminatory, and deepen harm to youth,” said Senate co-author Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). “For all those reasons, counties should not be able to collect previously charged fees.”

Research by the U.C. Berkeley School of Law Policy Advocacy Clinic has documented how such fees push youth further into the system and trap families in cycles of debt. Because of systemic racism in the juvenile system, even after controlling for underlying offense, researchers found that families of Black and Latinx youth are liable for higher fees than families of white youth.

“Fees unjustly force communities that are targeted by racist policing and punished by a racist carceral system to directly pay for that violence against them,” said lead co-sponsor Jessica Bartholow of Western Center on Law & Poverty. “Signing this bill will be an important step toward divesting community resources away from the carceral system and keeping those dollars in the hands of families and in their communities where they are desperately needed right now.”

“There is still work to do to eliminate these fees in the adult system, where they are equally harmful,” said co-sponsor Anthony Robles with the Youth Justice Coalition of Los Angeles. “But with the signing of SB 1290, California will lead the nation in juvenile fee reform by removing an excessive burden that keeps low-income families and communities of color in a vicious cycle of poverty and punishment.”

Contacts:

Jessica Bartholow, Western Center on Law & Poverty, (916) 282-5119, jbartholow[at]wclp.org

Anthony Robles, Youth Justice Coalition, (626) 838-9450, anthony[at]youth4justice.org

Stephanie Campos-Bui, Policy Advocacy Clinic, (909) 568-7410, scamposbui[at]law.berkeley.edu

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OC agrees not to collect $18.5 million from families whose children were locked in juvenile hall

“Los Angeles County recently dissolved $89.2 million in juvenile debt, according to the Western Center on Law and Poverty. San Bernardino County forgave $16.6 million, Riverside County dissolved $4.1 million and San Diego County forgave $58.8 million, the law center said.”

OC agrees not to collect $18.5 million from families whose children were locked in juvenile hall

Orange county ends racially discriminatory wealth extraction from thousands of families amid COVID-19 crisis

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SANTA ANA – Today the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to end collection and discharge $18.5 million in fees charged to families with children in the juvenile system prior to 2018. The Board’s bipartisan vote follows closely on the heels of decisions made by San Diego, Riverside, and Stanislaus counties to end the collection of more than $55 million in outstanding juvenile fees earlier this year, citing the harm to county residents under COVID-19 and research about fees undermining rehabilitation and increasing recidivism.

“Thank you, Orange County, for your action on juvenile fees,” said Oscar Villeda, a local father who will benefit from today’s vote. “Families like mine are working hard day in and day out to pay for our basic necessities, some even working weekends so that we earn enough and can try to live a better life. The elimination of these fees is a great relief, allowing us to sleep better at night, especially in the economic crisis caused by COVID-19.”

Senate Bill 190, which went into effect on January 1, 2018, prohibited counties from charging new juvenile fees, but it did not require counties to end collection of previously assessed fees, much of which is decades old. According to the Orange County Probation Department, they will eliminate the outstanding fees immediately by filing necessary legal documents, notifying affected families, and returning any payments made after today’s decision.

“With Orange County’s action, 42 of California’s 58 counties have relieved hundreds of thousands of families of approximately $350 million in juvenile fees, which our research has shown to be regressive, racially discriminatory, and harmful to youth well-being,” said Stephanie Campos-Bui, Deputy Director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law.

“This decision by the county’s Board of Supervisors will be a great relief to the families carrying this tremendous burden for too long,” said Michael Harris, Senior Director, Juvenile Justice and Legal Advocacy at the National Center for Youth Law. “It was one that was disproportionately born by families of color and will help Orange County become a more equitable and just community.”

Orange County made headlines after driving a single mother to sell her home and eventually to file for bankruptcy after she was unable to pay over $16,000 in juvenile fees for her son’s public defender and his detention in a juvenile facility. Another family, featured in a May 2020 story in the Orange County Register, has struggled to pay over $8,000 that they were charged for their son’s detention nearly a decade ago. The County threatened to garnish their wages and intercept their tax return after they were unable to make a recent payment.

“After years of organizing by families, youth and community members, we are relieved to see Orange County has ended the unjust practice of doubly taxing families to fund probation and the courts,” said Crystal Anthony and Suzanne Campbell, Co-Executive Directors for Underground GRIT. “This is especially important to alleviate the burden this policy has created for our youth and families.”

Although today’s action will bring immense financial and emotional relief to Orange County families, 16 counties continue to pursue approximately $15 million in outstanding juvenile fees. Tulare County is collecting nearly three-quarters of the remaining fees statewide with a balance of almost $11 million, according to this interactive map maintained by the Berkeley researchers.

“With all the growing momentum across the state, it is time for us to pass Senate Bill 1290 and end the collection of these fees once-and-for all in California,” said Jessica Bartholow, of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. SB 1290, co-authored by Senators Maria Elena Durazo and Holly J. Mitchell, passed out of the Senate with bipartisan support and will be heard in the Assembly when the legislature reconvenes.

“These fees are harmful no matter what side of the county line you live on,” said Bartholow. “We commend the Orange County Board of Supervisors for voting to end their collection and urge the remaining counties and state to follow suit as soon as possible. California should be a national beacon of debt-free justice.”

CONTACTS:

Jessica Bartholow, Policy Advocate Western Center on Law & Poverty, (916) 282-5119, Jbartholow[at]wclp.org
Michael Harris, Senior Director National Center for Youth Law, (510) 277-5452, mharris[at]youthlaw.org
Stephanie Campos-Bui, Deputy Director Policy Advocacy Clinic, (909) 568-7410, scamposbui[at]law.berkeley.edu

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California Takes Another Step Toward Relieving Family Debt

“On May 19, Western Center on Law & Poverty released a statement in collaboration with Berkeley Law’s Policy Advocacy Clinic in response to San Diego County eliminating old juvenile fees.

…“The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to discharge more than $40 million old juvenile fees for roughly 9,100 families,” stated the release. Many of these families “live at or below the poverty line.”

California Takes Another Step Toward Relieving Family Debt