San Mateo Court Sued for Imposing Unlawful and Exorbitant Late Fee Used to Fund Court System

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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. The Court administers this additional fee known as the civil assessment without judicial review, adequate notice, or consideration for a person’s circumstances. The $300 charge is often six to eight times greater than the base fine for a traffic infraction in California.

Civil assessment fees operate as a way for the Court to cover gaps in funding, shifting the cost of mass incarceration policies onto those who can least afford to pay. These policies have resulted in the San Mateo Superior Court raising revenue by charging the full $300 in more than 80,000 cases in the past three years—sending more than 100,000 cases to civil debt collection and collecting over $9 million in revenues for California state courts in the process.  

The suit is filed on behalf of plaintiff Anthony McCree and the Debt Collective, a debtors' union fighting to eliminate unjust debt. McCree, a 28-year-old Black man, was traveling to a job interview when he was cited for fare evasion on public transit. At the time, Mr. McCree was homeless. When he missed his payment, the San Mateo Superior Court automatically charged him a $300 fee. After securing housing in Alameda County, Mr. McCree received notices from the Court indicating that he owed the court a total of $860, even though the base fine for fare evasion is $250 at the maximum. Mr. McCree has struggled to find employment during the COVID-19 pandemic and is now worried he will again lose his housing.

“Unhoused people are much more likely to receive a civil assessment fee because, without a stable mailing address, housing instability may prevent them from receiving notifications about citations or court dates,” said Brandon Greene, racial and economic justice director at the ACLU of Northern California. “Likewise, other people who face unstable housing environments, like juveniles in foster care and domestic violence survivors, have added challenges to appearing in court and are therefore more likely to receive one of these fees.”

This practice also disproportionately impacts Black and Brown people—who, due to racism and deep biases in policing, are subject to traffic stops and citations at much higher rates than their white peers. In San Mateo County, police pull over Black drivers twice as often as white drivers. Black people are also over-represented in the homeless population making it more likely that they will miss court notifications sent by mail.

 “The practice of California courts paying for the costs of a massive criminal legal system on the backs of the same communities it already over polices and overcharges is perverse,” said Manuel Galindo, carceral debt organizer at the Debt Collective.

The Court’s civil assessment practices result in exceptionally harsh punishments imposed on already struggling and impoverished Californians. This does not advance the purpose of the Court and has harmful consequences for the communities it serves. Court debt and its consequences prolong and deepen cycles of poverty and criminal legal system involvement. It is cruel to punish people for being poor, especially during a pandemic that has had catastrophic impacts on low-income Californians.


Zal Shroff, Senior Racial Justice Attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the SF Bay Area, issued the following statement: "Let’s be clear: the courts are imposing this exorbitant charge to fund themselves. Not only is that a conflict of interest that violates constitutional due process, it is a cruel and systematic means of extracting wealth from Black and Brown communities to cover the costs of mass incarceration, which is what forced the courts into a budget crisis in the first place. California has a huge budget surplus — we can and should use that to fund the courts instead.”

Fawn Jade Korr, Senior Litigation Counsel at Bay Area Legal Aid, issued the following statement: “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.”

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