Broad-Based Coalition Tackles Outrageous Fines and Fees in San Francisco Traffic Court

Stephanie Funt, Brittany Stonesifer and Stephen Bingham

Debt arising from traffic or criminal court matters touches the lives of many San Francisco residents and, by diverting limited funds or triggering unemployment, keeps them trapped in a cycle of poverty. A group of attorneys and community organizers have come together to try to break the cycle.

The Debt Free San Francisco coalition officially formed in December 2015. It is comprised of Community Housing Partnership, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, All of Us or None, the Coalition on Homelessness, and retired Bay Area Legal Aid attorney Stephen Bingham. Three members of the coalition are NLG San Francisco Bay Area Chapter Members: Stephen Bingham, Brittany Stonesifer, and Stephanie Funt.

Some members of Debt Free SF are also part of the State-wide Back on the Road Coalition that issued a report, Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California in 2015. The report led to the sudden interest of California Supreme Court Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Judicial Council in the injustices that have been occurring in California traffic courts, all resulting in the state-wide Traffic Amnesty program codified in SB 405. The Amnesty program reduces debt for people who have tickets issued before 2013 and restores suspended driver’s licenses for people with traffic ticket debt. People who are low income can also receive up to an 80% reduction in their debt.

Debt Free SF wants San Francisco to do even better. On February 25th Debt Free SF members joined many victims of unfair license suspensions who spoke at a hearing in front of the Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety and Neighborhood Services committee.

Our proposals to the Board were:

1) Fund Amnesty education and outreach in the City’s FY 16-17 and FY 17-18 budget.

  • Provide funding to local community-based organizations to assist people in accessing the Amnesty process, with the goal of 100% participation from qualifying San Franciscans.
  • Fund additional costs of participation, such as interpretation/translation services, the $50 Amnesty participation fee and the $55 DMV license reinstatement fee.

2) Eliminate the use of license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees.

  • Establish as local policy that license suspensions are an inappropriate collection tool for infraction-related debt.
  • Direct all city agencies to cease reporting non-traffic violations to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

3) Terminate all contracts with private debt collectors and establish a fair and just approach to debt collection for San Francisco.

  • End the use of private debt collection for debt owed to the City and County by terminating relationships with Alliance One.
  • Build a locally-based public debt-collection system that incorporates core San Francisco values, including transparency, fairness and inclusiveness.
  • In addition, the City and County must urge the San Francisco Superior Court to allow low-income San Franciscans to clear past debt through a debt-relief court calendar and dismiss court-ordered fines and fees for low-income people.

4) Allow people to access the courts without regard to income.

  • Dismiss all outstanding bench warrants for people appearing voluntarily in court.
  • Allow people who failed to appear in court to request relief from any imposed civil assessment (a $300 fee) without having to first pay that assessment as “bail.”
  • Allow people who failed to appear in court to schedule new court dates.

5) Provide alternatives to full, lump-sum payment for low-income people.

  • Expand access to community service options to include participation in social services and educational or job training programs.
  • Increase the value of work credit hours for community service performed in lieu of payment of fines and allow a reduction in the total amount due relative to any community service completed, even if community service is not completed in full.
  • Eliminate fee requirements for participation in the work credit/payment plan program Project 20.

Supervisors Avalos and Kim are very supportive and are interested in a community task force to develop legislation. Supervisor Kim wrote an Op Ed in the Examiner, mentioning the need to end the City’s relationship with private debt collectors.

Addendum by Steve Bingham – The above was written by Stephanie and Brittany who both have been very active in this campaign in San Francisco. I helped write the report about California driver’s license suspensions cited above and the three of us are part of the State-wide team finishing a second, follow up report which focuses on the outrageous racial disparity of traffic stops. This work around the long-ignored issue of license suspension is typical of the economic justice work being done by Guild lawyers and legal workers around the country. Unfortunately, there is no Guild committee with a broad economic justice focus, though there are of course more specialized committees, such as the Labor & Employment Committee. This is why I wrote a short article in last month’s Chapter newsletter, soliciting interest in bringing back the NLG Economic Rights Task Force (ERTF). Please let Stephanie or me know if you’d be interested in participating in bringing back the ERTF.