New Report Reveals California Courts Impose Hidden Late Fee to Cover Court Costs 


March 2, 2022


Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the SF Bay Area, 415-272-8022


New Report Reveals California Courts Impose Hidden Late Fee to Cover Court Costs 

California Courts penalize up to a million Californians each year with a $300 fee for late payments, disproportionately burdening Black and Brown communities 

CALIFORNIA — This morning, the Debt Free Justice California Coalition released a groundbreaking report, Civil Assessments: The Hidden Court Fee that Penalizes Poverty. The civil assessment is a $300 poverty penalty charged to people who miss a payment or court deadline. Often, the fee exponentially increases the amount they owe: A $35 fine for running a stop increases by 8.5 times with the $300 late fee. Courts penalize up to one million people with this late fee each year, driving poor Black and Brown Californians even deeper into poverty. 

“This report provides clear evidence that California’s court-ordered civil assessments are crushing low-income residents with unnecessary and unfair debt. The $300 charge California slaps on people for not promptly paying low-level fines, like for jaywalking or a minor traffic ticket, are among the nation’s highest – nearly four times higher than that of Texas and Florida. These assessments not only don’t work, they also disproportionately harm Black and Brown Californians, because they’re more likely to be targeted for minor traffic violations. California can and must do better,” said State Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.

By analyzing more than 200 survey responses from people with recent traffic citations, this groundbreaking report reveals how the $300 late fee punishes Californians who simply aren’t able to pay. Findings illustrate: 

  • Civil assessments simply do not work. There is no evidence that charging $300 induces people to pay their ticket. 73% of respondents were not even aware that they could receive a $300 fee for missing a payment or court deadline. 
  • Most people cannot afford to pay civil assessments. Of those surveyed, 68% could not afford to pay the $300 hidden fee. If people had to pay an additional $300 on top of fines and fees for the original ticket, 86 percent said it would affect their ability to pay for food, 75 percent said utilities, and 65 percent said rent. 
  • Black and Brown Californians bear the brunt of civil assessments. Black and Brown Californians are more likely to be pulled over, and more likely to be ticketed. One California study found that Black people made up just 7% of the population, but over 16% of all stops. As they are given a disproportionate share of tickets, and more often stopped without cause, Black and Brown people are disproportionately punished by high add-on fees like the civil assessment.
  • Courts are incentivized to impose these fees as a way to cover gaps in their own funding, shifting court costs onto those who can least afford to pay. In fiscal year 2019-20, courts collected more than $96 million from civil assessments, more than $54 million of which they retained as revenue. For many courts, these revenues constitute a substantial portion of the annual budget. For instance, in Riverside County, in FY 2020-21, the Court collected $9.4 million of civil assessments and retained $6.9 million of those collections — 13.9% of the Court’s annual revenue.

“We simply must stop penalizing people for being poor. As this report demonstrates, repealing the civil assessment fee is a common-sense policy move grounded in data and racial and economic justice,” said Michael Tubbs, founder of End Poverty in California (EPIC). 

“We must repeal civil assessments. They are a part of an ineffective and punitive system to fund our court system by extracting wealth from Black and Brown Californians,” said Elisa Della-Piana, Legal Director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “Rather than rely on extreme back-end penalties that do not work and drive people into debt, our system of justice should invest in proven front-end tools that make it easier for people to pay or appear.” 

View the full report here

View the summary here