Debt Collective v. Superior Court of California

Closed Case
Jan 27, 2022

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

On January 27, 2022, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, Bay Area Legal Aid, and the law firm of Fenwick & West LLP filed suit against San Mateo County Superior Court for their unlawful practice of automatically imposing a $300 charge every time an individual misses a payment or court deadline in their traffic infraction case. On May 25, 2022, the Judicial Council of California—the highest administrative body for the California courts—was added as a defendant to this lawsuit.

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. These 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. 

On November 14, 2022, the San Mateo Superior Court agreed to stop imposing civil assessments, and, earlier this year, the County of San Mateo responded to our suit by permanently ending its role as the Superior Court’s debt collector.

Additionally, this lawsuit cemented the path for AB 199, new legislation that took effect on July 1, 2022, that eliminated hundreds of millions of dollars in outstanding civil assessments debt, reduced the civil assessment to a maximum of $100, and secured proper funding for California courts while explicitly prohibiting the courts from relying on late fees as a source of additional revenue at the expense of low-income Californians. 

Read more: Litigation Victory Signals End to California Courts’ Illegal Late Fees That Penalized Poverty For Profit

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