San Francisco Financial Justice Project announces $50 million in outstanding debt eliminated for tens of thousands of local residents who owe $300 late fees on traffic tickets

The debt relief is part of California-wide reform enacted by the California Legislature and signed by Governor Newsom to lower unfair and unnecessary fines and fees  

Posted September 14, 2022

The San Francisco Superior Court has eliminated $50 million in outstanding debt for people who owe “civil assessments,” $300 late fees charged by traffic court when people miss a deadline to pay or appear. This action eliminated approximately 180,000 $300 civil assessments that were charged prior to July 1, 2022. After July 1, civil assessments will be capped at $100.   

 The debt relief was enacted by California Assembly Bill 199. The reform was propelled by advocacy and research from Debt Free Justice California, a coalition of over sixty organizations.  

 “California should not fund our local courts by asking the courts to impose fees that they benefit from. Courts should be funded separate and apart from these fees,” said Anne Stuhldreher, Director of the Financial Justice Project in the office of San Francisco Treasurer José Cisneros. “Eliminating the debt from this unfair and unnecessary fee and lowering it is a commonsense reform and an important step forward. It will bring relief to hundreds of thousands of Californians.”   

 In San Francisco Superior Court, an estimated one-third of people who received traffic tickets could not pay them on time and were charged the $300 civil assessment. As part of the reform, revenue from the now lowered $100 civil assessment late fee will no longer fund local court operations, but instead will go to the statewide general fund. This change aims to remove the incentive for local courts to raise revenue through giving out more citations or charging more late fees.  

 The San Francisco Superior Court is a leader in ensuring fines and fees do not place a disproportionate burden on people with low incomes. San Francisco has the most robust ability to pay discounts in California for traffic tickets. In 2015, the San Francisco Court became the first in the state to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for people who could not afford to pay their traffic tickets. Court leaders were responding to community outcry that the penalty was too extreme, driving people with low incomes deeper into poverty. Since then, the state of California and twenty-one other states have adopted the same reform.  

 The Financial Justice Project was a coauthor of the Debt Free Justice California Coalition’s report Civil Assessments: The Hidden Court Fee that Penalizes Poverty. The report describes how the civil assessment fee is a “poverty penalty” that falls hardest on Black and brown people, who research shows are much more likely than white people to be pulled over for the same driving infractions. The report decried civil assessments as “high pain and low gain"—a regressive and ineffective way to fund government. According to one tally, Californians owe about $315 per capita in unpaid court fine and fee debt. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office noted in 2016 that “a large portion may not be collectable, as the cost of collections could outweigh the amount that would actually be collected.” 

"Elimination of this debt provides critical relief to tens of thousands of San Franciscans and is a significant step in the right direction," said Zal Shroff, Senior Staff Attorney at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. "People are hurting financially right now and it's critical that our courts not magnify that harm by burdening poor people with additionalneedless fees."

Anyone who owed the $300 late fees before July 1, 2022 will have this fee and debt eliminated. From July 1 onward, people can still be charged up to $100 for late payment after 21 days. Anyone who wants to see how much they owe on their San Francisco traffic ticket should go to this page and enter their driver’s license number.