The Morning Report
San Diego news and info
you need to take on the day.
Orion Hurst was headed back from Ramona to his home in Lemon Grove in 2017 when he got pulled over by California Highway Patrol. He quickly pleaded guilty to a ticket for not having valid registration.
A Grossmont College student at the time, Hurst couldn’t afford the $500 penalty all at once. He picked up jobs as a gig worker, delivering food for a couple apps, but was making close to minimum wage after accounting for gas and repairs to his 15-year-old car.
He opted instead for a monthly payment plan. But after missing a single payment, he got hit with a $300 late fee. It took Hurst two years to pay down the debt, and only because he was able to log more hours behind the wheel.
“It seemed like it took forever,” he said.
Late fees, otherwise known as civil assessments, are especially hard on people like Hurst who are already struggling to get by, but they’ve helped finance trial courts throughout the state. Until now: That funding source is on the verge of disappearing.
For decades, the Judicial Court of California, the rule-making arm of the state’s judicial system, has disbursed hundreds of millions of dollars in civil assessments stemming from traffic cases on the local level. Over the last three fiscal years, the San Diego County Superior Court got some of the highest allotments in the state, totaling more than $26.5 million, between three to five percent of the annual budget.
The architects of civil assessments have long portrayed this funding model as a way to incentivize people to pay their underlying ticket or face monetary consequences. But advocates argue that civil assessments constitute an illegal and regressive tax that pushes low-income people further into poverty. Few are even aware that they can challenge these fees.
Hurst knew he could have claimed financial hardship, because he’d read the fine print, but he figured it wasn’t worth the effort. “I thought it would just be easier to pay,” he said.
State lawmakers have proposed that civil assessments be eliminated and the associated debt forgiven, and they’re still in negotiations with Gov. Gavin Newsom over California’s next budget. A deal could be announced as early as Friday.
For years, advocates have pushed for the elimination of civil assessments but the proposal picked up momentum earlier this year when a coalition of debtors and nonprofit attorneys sued San Mateo County Superior Court. They alleged that judges there had been indiscriminately imposing a $300 late fee — the maximum — in traffic cases not as a deterrent but as a means of raising revenue. The lawsuit argues that the court is now dependent on these funds, which poses a conflict.
“A defendant in front of a judge is supposed to trust that the judge will make a decision impartially and not for any personal advantage,” Rio Scharf, an attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, told me. “Yet these funds are coming from the poorest of the poor and helping to fund the judge’s salary. The constitutional problem at issue here couldn’t be more stark.”
In statement, San Diego County Superior Court said its judicial officers do not routinely apply the maximum civil assessment in each case and disagreed that civil assessments created a conflict of interest. Judicial salaries, the court wrote, are determined by a government code, which ties their pay to the average of what state employees earn, and traffic division commissioners get a set percentage of that.
Scharf and others have traced the origin of this funding model to California’s tough-on-crime policies in the 1990s, which brought more people into the criminal justice system and put financial pressure on trial courts. San Diego helped pioneer civil assessments as a tool of revenue generation.
In 1996, an Assembly Public Safety Committee analysis touted San Diego County Superior Court’s ability to raise $4.2 million in a single year. Trial courts at the time were only allowed to impose civil assessments if a defendant failed to appear in court, but San Diego’s aggressive approach gave state lawmakers ideas about how to fix their pending crisis in the criminal justice system without proposing new taxes.
Thanks in part to testimony from an El Cajon municipal court administrator, the Legislature allowed trial courts throughout the state to impose civil assessments on defendants who also failed to pay their tickets, not just failed to appear. This expanded authority, according to the committee analysis, would improve the court’s ability to collect fees and “ease overcrowding in local jails” rather than issue a bench warrant.
It may have helped them pay the bills to run an ever-growing courts system, but it came at a cost to people on the ground. Individuals in traffic cases don’t typically hire attorneys and don’t always receive notice when they’ve missed a payment or deadline. The unpaid fees get kicked to the municipal government or, in the case of San Diego, private debt collectors. Those costs can spiral out of control and cause the state to garnish that person’s wages.
Those fees tend to be higher in California than other states and disproportionately affect people of color, who are more likely to be stopped by police while driving. But those fees are also difficult to collect. As of last year, San Diego County Superior Court estimated that it was still owed $223 million from civil assessments.
For its part, the Judicial Council has acknowledged that the current funding model creates at least a “perceived conflict of interest” and is fundamentally unsustainable because traffic infractions fluctuate on an annual basis. The number of traffic infractions in San Diego County has been trending downward in recent years — from approximately 136,000 in fiscal year 2014-15 to approximately 66,500 in fiscal year 2019-20.
California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye also expressed concern in a speech to lawmakers in 2013 that the state’s judicial branch was becoming “a user-fee institution” that disproportionately affected low-income people. In response to the lawsuit, San Mateo County Superior Court agreed to stop collecting civil assessments for six months. The decision was announced just as attorneys for the debtors were adding the Judicial Council to their original complaint.
As they all wait to see how the next budget comes together, the attorneys have effectively put San Diego County Superior Court on notice that similar litigation is in the works here. In a June 10 letter, they requested that court officials follow San Mateo’s lead and gave San Diego until the end of the month to come up with a plan to halt civil assessments.
In response, San Diego County Superior Court told Voice of San Diego that it hasn’t made any changes to its civil assessment policy, but the Judicial Council is closely monitoring the budget discussion in Sacramento and in support of a legislative resolution.
At the moment, California is sitting on a nearly $100 billion surplus. It’s still not clear, though, whether the governor is going to use some of that money to eliminate civil assessments or forgive the existing debt. Last year, the governor signed a bill eliminating other administrative fees, but it didn’t include late fees in traffic cases.
This time around, Newsom has signaled that he’s only willing to cut traffic late fees in half, but advocates don’t consider his compromise to have much value at all.
“People are still gonna be impoverished, and they have to decide if they’re going to use their limited resources to feed and shelter their family or pay the civil assessment,” said Mitchelle Woodson, executive director and managing attorney at the nonprofit Think Dignity. “That [fee] might as well be $1,000 because they’re still not gonna be able to pay it.”