Mandatory Court Fees for Poor Californians Ruled Unconstitutional

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Courts in California that levied hefty court fines on defendants without first assessing their ability to pay the mandatory fees violated the state and U.S Constitution, a state appeals court ruled.

California courts routinely levy court fees, such as fees for court operations and court facilities, on top of any penalties stemming from a criminal conviction.

But advocates have said the mandatory fees offer nothing towards the punitive or rehabilitative purposes of the court. Additionally, California has acknowledged it can only collect a fraction of the fees since many defendants simply cannot pay.

Fees often expose poor Californians to additional punishment by cutting off access to expungement, compounding their court debt and potentially having their driver’s licenses suspended, legal advocacy group Public Counsel said in a statement Tuesday.  

The organization filed a 22-page criminal appeal on Nov. 4, 2016 in California state court on behalf of Velia Duenas, a homeless, disabled mother who was charged $220 in court fees even after serving time in jail for misdemeanor convictions.

After receiving a citation as a teenager, Duenas’ driver’s license was suspended, which impeded her from keeping a job and driving her children to doctor visits or school.

Duenas later received three additional misdemeanor convictions for driving on a suspended license. She served over fifty days in jail in lieu of payment because she couldn’t afford to pay the fines.

In a 24-page order issued Tuesday, the California Second District Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s decision to impose fees on Duenas and held that the fees are both unjust and violate the due process clause of the U.S and California Constitution.

Justice Laurie Zelon wrote in the order that the fees serve no rational purpose and may be counterproductive to the judicial process.

“Poor people must face collection efforts solely because of their financial status, an unfair and unnecessary burden that does not accomplish the goal of collecting money,” Zelon wrote in the order. “In this statutory scheme, therefore, the wealthy defendant is offered an ultimate outcome that the indigent one will never be able to obtain.”

Zelon added that fees imposed without considering ability to pay are “neither procedurally fair nor reasonably related to any proper legislative goal.”

The fees were impermissible discrimination against poor individuals under California’s Constitution, which deems wealth to be a suspect classification, attorneys said in their appeal.

“Such fines and fees perpetuate a cycle of incarceration and impoverishment,” the appeal stated.

The state said in a 55-page reply brief that there is no constitutional violation if fees are imposed without a threat of imprisonment or the denial of fundamental rights and that the Legislature should shape court fee procedure.

“Absent constitutional implications, it should be left to the Legislature to address, as it has in recent legislation, the important and complex issue of debt owed to the court by those unable to pay,” the reply brief said.

Those who are unable to pay would be entitled to a court hearing and a court would be required to make a finding that a failure to pay is willful, the brief said.

Furthermore, fees help fund court operations and restitution fines help compensate victims of crime, the brief stated.

The case is remanded to trial court with directions to lift Duenas’ fee until the state can prove she has the ability to pay them.

The court also invited legislative input on the matter.

“We invite the Legislature to consider whether the statute should be amended to direct a trial court to consider the defendant’s ability to pay in imposing the fine,” the order said.

Kathryn Eidmann, an attorney with Public Counsel, said in a statement that the court decision is in line with state and federal constitutional guarantees of due process.

“The Court’s decision is a beacon of hope for thousands of vulnerable Californians trapped in an inescapable cycle of deepening poverty and criminal justice involvement,” Eidmann said. “This decision will reduce barriers to achieving economic self-sufficiency, rehabilitation and reentry for Ms. Duenas and others like her across the state.”

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