Calif. Weighs Abolishing Court Fees After Landmark RulingSunday, January 27, 2019
Law 360 – By RJ Vogt
Velia Dueñas is a homeless mother with cerebral palsy and too many bills to pay.
Together with her husband and two children, she receives less than $12,000 per year in California state government benefits — barely enough to cover essential life expenses, let alone the pile of court fees she’s accumulated after years of struggling through the criminal justice system.
The debts stem from her inability to pay a little over $1,000 in court costs from juvenile citations she received as a teenager. Because she couldn’t pay, the state suspended her driver’s license. When she was subsequently charged with three misdemeanors for driving on the suspended license, her debt to the system grew.
She’s since served 51 days of jail time in lieu of paying criminal penalties, in addition to 90 days as part of her sentence. Though the court waived her previously ordered attorney’s fees after finding she was too poor to pay them, it still demanded she pay $220 in “mandatory” facilities and operations costs and a restitution fine.
But according to a recent ruling by the California Court of Appeal, imposing the fines and fees was nothing more than punishment for being poor. In a landmark decision that advocates say could lead California to become the first state to abolish court fees, a three judge panel waived the facilities and operations costs and said the restitution fine must be stayed until the state can demonstrate that she can afford to pay.
“Because the only reason Dueñas cannot pay the fine and fees is her poverty, using the criminal process to collect a fine she cannot pay is unconstitutional,” the court ruled on Jan. 8. “These fees, assessed as part of a larger statutory scheme to raise revenue to fund court operations, should be … imposed only on those with the means to pay them.”
Dueñas’ attorney Kathryn Eidman, who works for the Los Angeles pro bono firm Public Counsel, said that once the ruling becomes final on Feb. 7, legal services lawyers around the state will cite the case in their own representation of indigent defendants.
“It establishes a legal precedent that applies to all criminal convictions going forward,” she told Law360.
Notably, the ruling also invited the state legislature to amend criminal statutes so that trial courts would have to consider a defendant’s ability to pay before imposing any “mandatory” fines.
Within 10 days of the judges’ invitation, Calif. Sen. Holly Mitchell accepted it. On Jan. 18, the Democratic legislator proposed a bill that goes even further than merely requiring ability to pay hearings, calling on her fellow lawmakers to eliminate administrative fees altogether.