Profiles of San Franciscans

Picture of Miqueesha Willis

“I can’t catch up to this debt.” -Miqueesha Willis

Miqueesha, a coalition member of Debt Free SF, struggled for over a year to get her license reinstated after having it suspended for delinquent court debt. The debt grew and grew with late fees and additional fines, prohibiting her from saving or catching up to the debt. As a worker in a company, Miqueesha was limited after losing her license because she could only take jobs in San Francisco after losing her license. On days when her company had work out of the area she had to go home, forfeiting pay for the day.  - (Youtube: Debt Free SF)

 “African-Americans make up 5.8% of San Francisco’s population. Yet they represent over 70% of people seeking legal assistance for driver’s license suspensions.” -Debt Free SF

Bay View/Hunter’s Point has the highest percentage of Black residents in San Francisco (35.8%). In the neighborhood’s zip code alone (94124), 6.7% of driver’s licenses were suspended for failure to pay fees or show up to court. This percentage is more than three times the state average, which is 2%.[1]


Picture of M Serrao“I guess they (cite you) to scare you away, so you won’t come back. But just because we got a citation doesn’t mean we’ll run away or disappear.” -Martell Serrao

Martell is a San Francisco native. When he lost his job, he was unable to afford rent in San Francisco and became homeless. He has been cited 20 to 30 times for obstructing sidewalks. In the Chronicle he is quoted saying, “I can’t pay the fines. I don’t have a job,”

- San Francisco Chronicle, Enforcing laws, changing attitudes (

“Between October 2006 and March 2014, the San Francisco Police Department issued over 50,000 citations for “quality of life” crimes, of which over 22,000 were for homeless people who were sleeping, sitting, or begging. 90 percent of homeless surveyed said they were unable to pay the fine for their last citation. In San Francisco, this results in a $300 civil assessment fee being added to the base fine, an arrest warrant, and a suspension of one’s driver’s license, according to the coalition on homelessness.”[2]



Picture of C Charles

The fees are just out of this world.” -Christina Charles

Christina, 56, of San Francisco, is disabled and receiving government aid. Between 2011 and 2012, Christina improperly stopped at a stop sign. She was driving with a missing license plate and a taillight out. When she couldn’t pay for the tickets and failed to appear in court her license was suspended. Eventually the unpaid debt reached $6,000. “It’s definitely a hardship... If you break a law, you should pay the penalty. And I know you shouldn’t be driving on a suspended [license]. But the fees are just out of this world. There has got to be better ways to get your license back.”

- The Sacramento Bee, Small traffic fines can lead to big problems for some Californians (


In San Francisco Black residents are less than six percent of the population. However, Black residents account for nearly half of all people arrested for not paying traffic related fines or fees.[3]


Picture of E Van Dyke

“I think it’s irresponsible to assume that people living in this city have $700 of expendable money at a moment’s notice.” -Emily Van Dyke

When Emily forgot to set her alarm to move her car to comply with a one-day construction permit, she woke up to an empty spot where her car had been parked the night before. Her car had been towed. She paid $571.75 (plus a “flatbed fee” because the car could not be towed in the usual way), just to get her car out of the AutoReturn lot. When she got the car back, she had a $68 parking ticket on the windshield, too. “The worst part is going into the lot and seeing the extra ticket on your windshield,” she said, climbing into her car. “It’s a slap in the face. I think it’s irresponsible to assume that people living in this city have $700 of expendable money at a moment’s notice. If you can’t pay it, the money continues to compound.”

-SF Gate, SF’s steep towing fees trouble city supervisors             

About 163 vehicles are towed in San Francisco every weekday.  Of the roughly 42,350 vehicles towed annually in San Francisco, about 10 percent of the owners abandon their cars, according to MTA. Those who forfeit their cars still have to pay the difference between the fine and the worth of the car. In San Francisco, the lucky ones will pay around $600 to get their car back — a charge two to three times higher than nearly every other city in the country, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles included. The most unfortunate will pay hundreds of dollars and still end up losing their car.[4]


Picture of Kanisha“I’m not going to be able to afford it so I’m going to be sitting in jail.” -Kanisha

Kanisha is a 22-year-old San Francisco native. She found herself in trouble with the law and was arrested and charged with three felonies and two misdemeanors. On her hearing date, the judge set her bail at $110,000.

“I was like, ‘I’m not going to be able to afford it so I’m going to be sitting in jail’.”

The Public Defender’s Bail Unit investigated the case. They found out some important details about Kanisha’s health and her status in the community and created a 34-page motion for her bail evaluation hearing. They found that Kanisha is firmly rooted in San Francisco, does not pose a safety or flight risk and that her health could be at risk if she awaited her case’s verdict in jail.

After the arguments were heard from both sides, Kanisha became the 35th person The Bail Unit helped obtain release. The judge said Kanisha could leave under the condition she remains under house arrest. Now that she is out of jail, she is statistically much less likely to return.

-KQED: PBS Newshour, Contesting bail to take on racial disparities in San Francisco jails (

Two-thirds of Californians sitting in jails are there not because they have been found guilty of a crime. They are simply jailed until their trial because they cannot pay bail, which averages $50,000 in our state.[5]



[1] Stopped, Fined, Arrested: Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California. Back on the Road California

Coalition, April 2016.

[2] Punishing the Poorest: How the Criminalization of Homelessness Perpetuates Poverty in San    

Francisco. Coaltion on Homelessness, San Francisco, 9 June 2015

 [3] Palomino, Joaquin. "More Black Arrests over Unpaid Fines, Fees Found in SF." SF Gate. Hearst

Communications, Inc., 11 Apr. 2016. Web.

[4] Green, Emily, and Lizzie Johnson. "SF’s Steep Towing Fees Trouble City Supervisors." SF Gate.

Hearst Communications, Inc., 8 Mar. 2016. Web.

[5] Tafoya, Sonya. "Pretrial Detention and Jail Capacity in California". Public Policy Institute of California, July 2015.