Tomorrow, I’m going to San Francisco Traffic Court.
I don’t have any traffic tickets. I haven’t driven a car since 2005. I’m going tomorrow as part of my job. My organization works with homeless individuals who have received quality of life citations, such as sleeping on the sidewalk, jaywalking, and urinating in public. These low level citations go to Traffic Court. We are working on making the process less onerous for homeless people.
Let me explain the process so that you see what I mean. (1) If you are homeless and receive a citation (such as for jaywalking), the police officer writes you a ticket and says, “Show up to court by the date on the ticket”. (2) You show up the first time and go to the first floor clerk, who says, “Come back for your arraignment in a week”. (3) You come back a second time to see the judge, who says, “We are only processing these citations on the second and fourth Friday of the month, so you’ll have to come back this coming Friday.” (4) You show up a third time, meet the DA, and receive a form to have the citation dismissed if you receive certain social services, such as staying in a homeless shelter. (5) You go back to court a fourth time, submit the form, and the citation is dismissed.
You need to go to court four times in order to get the citation dismissed. Even though it is a simple process, there is no way to submit the form online or by mail. And if you are disabled, working, taking care of someone, or otherwise unable to get to court, you could very well miss your court date.
It used to be that when people missed their court dates, the court would issue bench warrants for their arrest. Police officers generally ignored these warrants, saying, “We have better things to do than arrest people for sleeping on the sidewalk.” But now, folks who miss their court dates are issued $300 civil assessments. Moreover, once the civil assessment is in place, the person needs to pay the underlying citation as a “bail” in order to get into court. Thus, even if you are eligible to get the case dismissed by receiving services, you need to pay the citation fine first to receive the services form. The citations start at around $150. Most homeless people can’t afford that.
So now we have many homeless folks burdened with court debt in the form of citations and civil assessments, ruining their credit. If these folks ever try to find a place to live, the debt can severely impact their chances.
Some may say, “Well, they broke the law, so they should face the consequences.” But if you’ve ever jaywalked before, you’ve broken one of these laws. Moreover, many of these laws (such as sleeping on the sidewalk) are directly connected with homelessness. These laws and citations ultimately make it more difficult for people to not be homeless.
I know that people don’t like seeing homeless folks lying on the sidewalk or urinating in public. It’s unpleasant. But homeless people need to sleep. Homeless people need to relieve themselves. They don’t have any private place to perform these essential functions, so they do them in public. It’s unrealistic to believe that making these activities illegal will somehow get people to stop doing them.
So I’m going to Traffic Court tomorrow to observe what’s going on.