SACRAMENTO — This morning, civil rights and legal aid organizations sent a letter to the Sacramento County Superior Court demanding an end to $300 civil assessments, asserting that the fine violates California law and state and federal constitutions. The $300 civil assessments are charged to individuals simply for missing a payment deadline or court appearance for an infraction ticket — a penalty that is often six times higher than the punishment for the underlying offense.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF), the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California, Bay Area Legal Aid, and Legal Services of Northern California submitted the letter, drawing from decades of expertise representing low-income Californians in the court system, including traffic courts.
The demand letter contends that civil assessments violate due process, equal protection rights, and California statutes, by denying a fair hearing and imposing costs without regard to people’s ability to pay. Those with the inability to pay on time face the additional punishment of license suspension, reduced employment opportunities, harassment by debt collectors, and financial instability.
“Civil assessments are not only forcing struggling Californians into cycles of poverty and debt, they are being imposed unconstitutionally,” said Elisa Della-Piana, Legal Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “A $300 charge for missing a payment for an infraction ticket like jaywalking violates the protection against excessive fines. We demand the Court cease imposing civil assessments until its policies are changed to comply with constitutional requirements.”
The demand letter also contends that civil assessments exacerbate poverty and racial inequality by subjecting those least able to pay their fines or appear in court to unnecessary and inordinately harsh punishment. Police issue citations to Black and Latinx people disproportionately and civil assessments exacerbate the disparity. Unhoused and unstably housed people, youth in foster care, and domestic violence survivors also face significant barriers to appearing in court or paying for a citation on time and are more susceptible to civil assessments.
“Failure to appear and failure to pay most often reflects poverty and a lack of legal assistance, not willful disregard for the court system,” said Brandon Greene, Director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California. “Because Civil Assessments are inextricably linked to biased policing, they result in racialized wealth extraction from Black and Brown communities. We should not punish low-income Californians with hundreds of dollars of fees simply for being poor nor should we fund the courts through this regressive tax scheme. It is long past due to end civil assessments.”
“The widespread trial court practice of automatically imposing the full $300 amount reflects the questionable incentives set up by the current funding system,” said Novella Coleman, Litigation Director at Bay Area Legal Aid.
"For years, we have seen civil assessments impact our low-income, Black, and Brown communities," said
Wade Askew, managing attorney of Legal Services of Northern California's Expanded Access Project. "The debt does not attach to so-called scofflaws, but instead to hard working people facing numerous obstacles. What results from the assessments are only more barriers -- aggressive debt collection and heightened financial instability, difficult choices of whether to spend limited funds on court debt, rent, or food, and judicial resistance to granting forms of relief that could expand career opportunities."