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Challenging Unjust Juvenile Fee Collection for Families in Riverside

Last month, Western Center filed a motion for class certification in our case, Freeman v. Riverside County, which challenges how Riverside County charged fees to parents and guardians whose children were involved in the juvenile legal system. The case was filed together with our co-counsel, the National Center for Youth Law.

Families were charged daily “costs of support” – $30 or so per day for each day their child was in detention. State law required the county to assess families’ ability to afford the costs, which were often thousands of dollars, and provide procedural due process before collecting. Riverside did nothing – just calculated the fees and sent the totals to collection. Our case seeks to shine a light on this abuse of government authority, and asks for a refund of illegally collected fees.

Fortunately, the authority to charge these types of juvenile fees has been eliminated in California, as well as counties’ ability to collect older fees. The story behind this case is important, not just for accountability in Riverside, but also because there are still many fees charged to overpoliced communities in California.

Cases like this one demonstrate why advocates are fighting for abolition of juvenile and adult criminal fees – not a reduction or ability to pay process. There are important racial equity principles behind that goal, because of who the juvenile and adult legal systems target. There are also common sense administrative policy reasons for fee abolition, mainly that ability to pay processes are inequitable and don’t work. Our case in Riverside shows that even when state law requires an ability to pay process, it is not followed, or it’s followed so ineptly or inconsistently that it becomes meaningless. Ability to pay processes also replicate racial bias in the courts and legal system.

As this case proceeds, I must share our appreciation and admiration for our clients who have worked with us on this case for over two years, and for their bravery in telling their stories. We are hopeful for a good outcome, and that the class data we may be able to obtain illustrates why shifting the cost of government onto individuals through user fees causes inequity, and in a nutshell, constitutes wealth stripping from low income communities and communities of color.

ACLU pushes Riverside Superior Court to end civil assessments on traffic tickets

“In a seven-page letter sent Tuesday, June 22, to Superior Court Presiding Judge John M. Monterosso, the ACLU and Western Center on Law and Poverty in Los Angeles claim the court’s current blanket policy of imposing $300 civil assessments violates state law and the state and U.S. constitutions.”

ACLU pushes Riverside Superior Court to end civil assessments on traffic tickets

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].

PRESS RELEASE: Lawsuit Against Riverside County Seeks Reimbursement for Families Illegally Charged with Juvenile Justice Fees

 

 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

For over a decade Riverside County collected juvenile fees without following the mandated legal process, disproportionately punishing Black and Latinx families and those with low incomes.

Riverside, CA — An amended complaint was filed today against Riverside County for its failure to reimburse families that were illegally charged fees for their children involved in the juvenile justice system. In response to the plaintiffs’ demand letter and an earlier complaint in the same case, the County stopped collecting juvenile fees in April, but has not issued reimbursements for thousands of families who were wrongfully charged fees they could not afford.

“For years, Riverside County illegally collected fees from families that could not afford to pay, which caused significant economic strain and kept families in a cycle of debt.” said Rebecca Miller, Senior Litigator at Western Center on Law & Poverty. “Our lawsuit seeks to right that wrong.”

The complaint alleges that the County did not follow necessary legal protocol when it charged families with fees. Before the County ended fee collection in April, it was obligated to follow a process which included obtaining a court order, and ensuring families had the ability to pay fees they were assessed.

The County did not provide families with required notices about their rights, the legal process, or how to challenge the fees. The amended complaint filed today seeks to compel the County to reimburse families for past fees since the County did not follow the required process. Riverside County’s failure to comply with its legal obligations means its collection of fees violated state statutes and the state constitution.

“We want to help get people their money back,” said Daniel Freeman, a plaintiff in the case. “When families make a mistake, the County doesn’t care. But when the County makes a mistake, they don’t have to do anything. They should have followed the rules. People really suffered because they didn’t, so they should pay that money back.”

For over ten years, Riverside County pursued Mr. Freeman and his wife, both who are over 65 and retired, for approximately $8,000 in fees related to their grandson’s involvement in the juvenile justice system, as they raised their grandsons whose mother died. The Freemans’ primary source of income was Social Security retirement. Contrary to state law, the County did not evaluate the Freemans’ ability to pay, did not provide notice of their right to contest the assessment and collection of fees, and did not obtain a court order against the Freemans. Instead, the County misled the Freemans into making monthly payments.

The Freemans are only one family of thousands from whom Riverside County pursued millions of dollars in fees using these illegal methods. Through this lawsuit, the Freemans and other plaintiffs in Riverside County seek relief for families charged with juvenile fees in violation of state law.

“The juvenile justice system is supposed to support the rehabilitation of young people, but in Riverside County, that guiding philosophy is turned on its head,” said Michael Harris, Senior Director, Legal Advocacy and Juvenile Justice at the National Center for Youth Law. “The County’s practices have had a devastating effect on families that needed help.”

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Riverside County increases number of people receiving general relief subsidies by 3,900% in past year

In the past year, Riverside County increased the number of people to whom it provided “general relief” by 3,900% in response to a lawsuit filed by three California social justice law firms which argued the county’s system made the cash assistance program hard to access for indigent individuals, particularly those who were homeless.

The $3 million county-funded, state-mandated general relief program (also called general assistance) provides temporary financial assistance to adults who don’t have access to other assistance programs such as Social Security income, disability assistance, unemployment benefits or other programs. The program generally helps single adults who don’t fit into the programs that come with age, disability or family qualifiers.

…“In some cases, folks were telling us they would go to the social services office to apply and would be told by workers that if you are homeless you aren’t even eligible,” said Alexander Prieto, a senior attorney from the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

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PRESS RELEASE: With legal settlement, Riverside County now providing General Assistance to over 4,000 individuals in deep poverty, up from 100 in 2018

 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

Changes to county policy means thousands in Riverside County, particularly adults experiencing homelessness, can now access vital cash benefits

 

Riverside, CA – A settlement has been reached with Riverside County in Isabel Bojorquez, et al. v. County of Riverside, et al., a lawsuit filed on behalf of three General Assistance (GA) recipients to change policies under the county’s GA program. GA is the program of last resort for the poorest Californians – indigent residents who cannot qualify for other benefit programs. 

 

Western Center on Law & Poverty, Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc., and the Public Interest Law Project are the attorneys on the case.

 

Before the case began, roughly 100 people in Riverside County received GA each month. In the time since litigation began in 2018, that number has increased to more than 4,000 people each month, according to the latest available data.

 

The settlement includes an agreement by the county to end its prior illegal policy limiting homeless recipients to six months of housing assistance payments. The county will now only end housing assistance payments where the recipient declines an offer of available shelter without a good reason. 

 

“People experiencing the kind of poverty that qualifies them for General Assistance usually have little to no resources. General Assistance can be vital for a person’s ability to rent a room or find a motel where they can sleep,” said Alex Prieto, an attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty.

 

Riverside County will issue guidance to workers and train them on the county’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities. The county will also review previous applications for a limited period and issue retroactive payments to anyone denied under the former policy.

 

“I’m hopeful that this outcome in Riverside will prompt other counties to revisit their policies and approach to General Assistance as well,” said attorney Anthony Kim of Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc. 

 

These changes come after others the county made in response to litigation pressure, and across two previous mediation sessions. To date, the county has raised GA grant amounts, raised resource limits, simplified application processes, issued guidance regarding due process, and ended a policy that required employable recipients to re-apply for benefits every month, even though their circumstances were unchanged.

 

“Increasing General Assistance across the board in California counties, and simplifying the process for people to access it, could provide a significant stop-gap in our state’s battle against homelessness and increasing poverty,” said Lauren Hansen, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Project. “This is a good example of the kinds of things counties can do, ideally without the need for litigation, to curb deep poverty in their jurisdictions.”

 

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About Western Center on Law & Poverty

Western Center on Law & Poverty fights for justice and system-wide change to secure housing, health care, racial justice and a strong safety net for low-income Californians. Western Center attains real-world, policy solutions for clients through litigation, legislative and policy advocacy, and technical assistance and legal support for the state’s legal aid programs. Western Center is California’s oldest and largest legal services support center.

 

About Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc. (ICLS)

Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc. (“ICLS”) is the largest non-profit legal aid organization in the Inland Empire with offices located in Riverside, Indio, San Bernardino, Victorville and Rancho Cucamonga.  ICLS is dedicated to securing justice and equality for low-income people in the communities of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, through litigation, counsel, advice, and community education.

 

About the Public Interest Law Project (PILP)

Since 1996, the Public Interest Law Project (PILP) has provided crucial litigation and advocacy support to local legal services and public interest law programs throughout California. The primary purposes of PILP are to assist local legal services programs in rendering legal services to lower income persons who are financially unable to afford legal assistance, and to provide technical assistance, training, research and litigation support to public interest law programs and community based organizations on law and policy issues related to housing and community development, public benefits, health, education, welfare, and civil, consumer and economic rights.