HOUSTON (CN) - Harris County takes millions of dollars in illegal court fees from criminal defendants in "what amounts to little more than armed extortion," two men claim in a federal class action.
Lead plaintiffs Onesimo "Trey" Perez and Jonathan Hawes say they paid Harris County a total of $662 in court costs "despite the fact that no fees were actually owed." They say they paid the money to avoid arrest and jail.
The county charged Perez $417 for his DUI conviction in July 2012, and Hawes $215 for his marijuana possession conviction that month, according to the complaint.
Given Harris County's status as Texas' most populated county, with more than 4 million people, the illegal fees add up fast, the class claims.
In March this year alone Harris County's criminal courts disposed of 5,733 cases, according to county records.
"For years, defendant Harris County has, at the threat of incarceration, extorted unlawful 'court costs' from those convicted of misdemeanor and felony crimes, in clear violation of Texas law," the complaint states. "Harris County's practice has taken millions of dollars from the class so represented by the named plaintiffs without any justification, in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
"Under Texas law, a court cost assessed against a criminal defendant 'is not payable by the person charged with the cost until a written bill is produced or is ready to be produced, containing the items of cost, signed by the officer who charged the cost or the officer who is entitled to receive payment for the cost' ...
"While the judgment against a defendant may include an instruction to pay costs, Texas law is clear that an obligation of a convicted person to pay court costs is established by statute, not by court order. This statute requires a bill of costs as a pre-requisite to any assessment of court costs by a county clerk.
"Despite this, for years Harris County had a practice of failing and/or refusing to file a bill of costs or any documentation to support the charges levied against criminal defendants in every conviction in the county.
"In fact, from April 2011 until late 2012, Harris County did not even have a policy or mechanism for producing a bill of costs in a criminal matter. Rather than abide by Texas law, Harris County chose to assess court costs against criminal defendants without the prerequisite bill of costs. Harris County was thereby assessing costs that were not properly chargeable against criminal defendants." (Citations to exhibits omitted.)
Harris County has no right to these fees but issues arrest warrants for anyone who refuses to pay, the class claims.
"Thereby County used its threat of arrest by armed police to force those plaintiffs to pay the unlawful costs. Harris County's conduct of assessing costs without statutory authorization, and then forcing payment of the costs by armed police, amounts to little more than armed extortion," the complaint states.
The class seeks damages for unconstitutional taking, and an injunction to stop Harris County from collecting illegal court fees.
It is represented by David Mullin with Mullin Hoard & Brown of Amarillo.
A court spokesman told Courthouse News the district attorney does not comment on pending litigation.
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