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An Equal Justice Works Fellow’s Mission To Decriminalize Poverty

August 23, 2022
During their time as a Latham & Watkins-sponsored Fellow, Rio Scharf has litigated cases that seek to change how jurisdictions address the imposition and collection of criminal legal debt.

Rio Scharf has worked at a blistering pace over the last two years as a Latham-sponsored Equal Justice Works Fellow.

Based at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF), Scharf has focused on addressing the criminalization of poverty — the ways in which the justice system perpetuates poverty by punishing people for being poor. Scharf has run LCCRSF’s decriminalization clinic for the past 23 months, providing direct pro bono services to resolve individual bail bond and immigration bond matters, as well as criminal fines and fees issues. During Scharf’s time with the clinic, LCCRSF hosted three trainings for Latham, with more than 25 attorneys attending, and matched 17 Latham attorneys with clients — 11 of whom have already won their cases.

Scharf says their past involvement with criminal justice and housing rights movements inspired his decision to attend Harvard Law: “I saw people struggling so mightily just to survive. I knew I didn’t have the tools to adequately resolve their problems, so I went to law school to equip myself with the skills to better serve people. During law school, I became obsessed with the collateral consequences that result from criminal and traffic courts. I came to believe that consumer protection law could play an important role in helping people address these consequences — especially the debt and abusive collection practices people face. I decided to come back to the Bay Area and help people free themselves from the many burdens our court system placed on them.”

Beyond running the LCCRSF pro bono clinic, Scharf helped litigate the state’s first class action consumer protection lawsuit against a bail bond company, targeting the company’s practice of harassing bail bond cosigners, which included incessant phone calls, threats of incarceration, and contacting employers. While the suit is ongoing, LCCRSF secured a preliminary injunction from the First District Court of Appeal, which halted the company’s debt collection efforts on US$38 million of contracts, and affirmed that the bail bond industry must follow consumer protection laws.

Scharf and LCCRSF have also engaged in impact litigation in California designed to reform and eliminate the state’s use of civil assessments — fees imposed against traffic court defendants that miss a payment or appearance deadline. “An individual cited for jaywalking — which carries a fine of US$35 — can balloon to US$597 once a civil assessment is imposed,” Scharf explains.

LCCRSF, along with co-counsel, filed suit against San Mateo Superior Court, the County of San Mateo, and the Judicial Council for unlawful civil assessment practices, including a blanket policy of imposing late fees on all eligible clients without engaging in judicial discretion, as well as failing to provide defendants with adequate information regarding the fees. In just the past three years, the San Mateo Superior Court has charged civil assessments in more than 80,000 cases, exacting over $9 million from Californians. LCCRSF’s lawsuit is still ongoing, but the Court has already committed to stop imposing and collecting all civil assessments for five months, while the case is in abeyance.

Scharf’s work with LCCRSF and its coalition partners has led to key policy changes in California, notably a US$100 cap on civil assessments and the redirection of fees from the courts that impose them to the state’s General Fund. The state also discharged approximately US$500 million of civil assessment debt — a relief to thousands of low-income Californians. LCCRSF is also working to decriminalize jaywalking, sponsoring the Freedom to Walk Act to reduce racially biased and pre-textual pedestrian detentions. Scharf has played an integral role in the campaign, and provided testimony to the California Senate Committee on Public Safety, convincing lawmakers to advance the bill.

Reflecting on their fellowship, Scharf noted that “as an Equal Justice Works Fellow, I’ve learned about the incredible advantage of integrated lawyering services. Connecting direct services, policy work, grassroots campaigning, and impact litigation creates the momentum we need to compel the government to correct injustices in the system.”

“Equal Justice Works Fellows provide critical support to legal aid organizations on the front lines of increasing access to justice, allowing the organizations to expand their work and achieve more. Scharf’s prolific accomplishments over their two-year fellowship term are extraordinary — the start of what will undoubtedly be a brilliant legal career — and we are so grateful for the opportunity to support them,” said Wendy Atrokhov, Public Service Counsel and Director of Global Pro Bono.

For 25 years, Latham has sponsored more than 30 public interest fellowships through Equal Justice Works. The organization seeks “to create opportunities for lawyers to transform their passion for equal justice into a lifelong commitment to public service.” Equal Justice Works’ fellowships address the shortage of lawyers working on behalf of traditionally underserved populations by providing financial and technical support to the fellows as they meet the most pressing needs in their communities. Eighty-five percent of Equal Justice Works Fellows remain in public service positions, continuing to pursue equal justice for underserved communities across the US.