Monday, August 15, 2016

What happens if you don't pay your court-imposed fine?

For misdemeanors, violations of local ordinances, and civil infractions, usually the defendant is ordered to pay a fee or fine instead of going to jail.  If the person cannot afford to pay the fine, many times it is converted to community service or another option.

In some cities and counties, the failure to pay fees and/or fines is punished [the fees/fines are "enforced"] by sentencing the offender to serve some jail time.

The US Department of Justice recently sent a "dear colleague" letter, indicating that the practice of converting unpaid fees and fines into jail time may run afoul of "basic constitutional principles".  Individuals required to serve that jail time may "confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape.”

The letter outlined “basic constitutional principles” regarding fee and fine enforcement, including:

1) Don't put a person in jail for nonpayment without first determining whether the person is indigent and whether the failure to pay is willful.

2) Consider alternatives to jail for indigent defendants unable to pay, including community service, classes, reducing the amount owed, or extending the time for payment.

3) Do not condition access to a judicial hearing on the prepayment of fees and fines.

4) Do not use practices that keep indigent defendants in jail because they can’t afford to pay for their release.

In my local jurisdiction, I've seen judges implement all of the above practices, giving defendants lots of chances to pay rather than sending a person to jail.  Sometimes, however, I've actually seen defendants voluntarily request jail time, because either they are already going to jail on another issue, or it's easier for them to spend a few days in jail rather than come up with the money.

Bottom line:  if you can't afford to pay your fine, ask the court for alternatives.  Don't just decide not to pay.  Because if that's what you do, you might end up in jail.

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