CoA ruling deals a blow to Debtor's Prison effect


A reduction of excessive court costs is long overdue:

The Court of Appeals published a unanimous opinion this week holding that when multiple criminal charges arise from the same underlying event or transaction and are adjudicated together in the same hearing or trial, they are part of a single “criminal case” for purposes of assessing court costs.

The case stems from a Buncombe County incident – Dave Robert Rieger was pulled over for following another vehicle too closely and was ultimately arrested for possession of marijuana and possession of marijuana paraphernalia. He took his case to trial and was convicted of both charges. Because the state filed the charges against him in two separate charging documents, there were two separate judgments against him even though they were disposed of through the same trial. The judge imposed court costs in each of the two judgments, amounting to a total of nearly $800. The question to the three-judge appellate panel was whether Rieger experienced one criminal case or two.

At a recent local candidate event I was able to have a few words with a couple of judges and a District Attorney, and I mainly focused on court costs and high amounts of cash bail. Surprisingly enough, they were all concerned about this, and eager to talk about it (as opposed to ignoring it). We may be approaching a critical point in criminal justice reform, and it is much needed:

Quisha Mallette, a staff attorney for the Fair Chance Criminal Justice Project at the North Carolina Justice Center, said criminal defense attorneys should be bringing attention to the opinion and using it as soon as possible to lessen the debt burden on clients. (Disclosure: Policy Watch is also a project of the Justice Center.)

She pointed to the appellate panel’s finding that court costs can function like a punishment, particularly for low-income individuals.

The opinion notes that payment of court costs is typically a condition of a defendant’s probation and willful failure to pay can result in revocation, and loss of a driver’s license. Unpaid court costs can also be converted into a civil judgment that becomes a lien on the defendant’s property, it states.

“For many low-income individuals, paying hundreds of dollars in court costs (in this case the court costs are nearly $800) is beyond their reach,” the opinion states. “The consequences – possible probation violations, lack of a driver’s license, no access to credit – can lead to a cascade of crises that ultimately return even the most well-intentioned people back to the criminal justice system.”

Aside from the court costs, which are assessed at the end of the adjudication process, our cash bail system is beyond broken. If you've never had to post bail, consider yourself lucky. You have to give a bail bondsman 10% of the total bond amount. So a $15,000 bond will cost you $1,500 (cash) to get out of jail pending the completion of your court case. If you can't come up with it, you stay in jail, sometimes for several months, as our horrifically under-funded court system crawls along. While you're there you are (of course) not earning a living, not paying the bills, and many end up homeless even if they are not eventually convicted of the crime with which they're charged. It's a mess, and it's long past time for that mess to be fixed.