New California Law Erasing Traffic Fines Forgives $50 Million Of San Francisco Debt
Traffic light on red, Manhattan, New York, America, USA
Traffic light on red/Getty Images

A new California law forgave around $50 million of San Francisco’s traffic fine debts, and is expected to forgive around $500 million debts statewide. 

The $50 million accounted for approximately 180,000 traffic tickets, according to a press release from the San Francisco Treasurer’s Office. Anne Stuhldreher, director for the treasurer’s Financial Justice Project, one of the principal instigators of the legislation, asserted that local courts shouldn’t fund themselves directly from the fees they impose. 

“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 Stuhldreher. “Eliminating the debt from this unfair and unnecessary fee and lowering it is a commonsense reform and an important step forward.”

The San Francisco Treasurer’s Office established the Financial Justice Project to discover and change fines and fees that adversely or disproportionately impact minority or low-income individuals.

The law — Assembly Bill 199, part of the state’s budget bill  — eliminated fees issued before July 1 and provided $10 million in backfill to the courts. It also reduces the civil assessment fee, or late fee, from $300 to $100. Those late fees will now go to California’s general fund rather than the local court.

The bill also expanded eligibility for automatic filing fee waivers to those within 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, those participating in the state’s supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and those receiving unemployment compensation.

According to one of the assembly members that introduced the bill, Phil Tang (D-San Francisco), the main point of the bill was equity. He estimated that late fees were extracting $100 million, which he claimed in an interview with ABC7 News disproportionately impacted low-income families.

“Unfortunately for too long, our courts have been relying on low-income individuals paying civil assessments to fund many of their operations,” said Ting. 

However, California legislators didn’t come up with the idea for the bill. 

A coalition of activist groups, the Debt Free Justice California (DFJC), pushed the California Assembly and Governor Gavin Newsom to pass the bill. DFJC members include the ACLUs of Northern and Southern California, the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, PolicyLink, and San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project.

The debt forgiveness legislation was largely patterned after a March report authored by DFJC and the San Francisco treasurer’s Financial Justice Project claiming that civil assessments, or late fees, were a “poverty penalty” that impacted “Black and brown people” unfairly.

Yet, DFJC said that this latest debt forgiveness law didn’t go far enough. Rio Scharf, a representative of one of the coalition’s member organizations, claimed in a June press release that the state was perpetuating racism and poverty by not eliminating late fees entirely.

“Governor Newsom had the opportunity to eliminate this racist and regressive fee and didn’t step up,” said Scharf. “The continuation of civil assessments will burden many more Californians and undermine the very financial relief the governor seeks to deliver through this year’s budget.”

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