N.H. Supreme Court Rules State Agency Must Follow Collection Laws

Public defenders who work to keep individuals charged with crimes from being sent to prison can not then put those individuals in jail when they don’t pay their lawyers, the Supreme Court of New Hampshire has ruled in what is being called a “historic” decision.

The state’s Office of Cost Containment, which collects bills on behalf of public defenders, must follow the same law as everyone else when it comes to trying to collect from individuals who have unpaid court costs. The law, which went into effect last year, provides a number of safeguards and protections before an individual can be put in jail for an unpaid court fine or for failing to complete community service. Among those safeguards are:

  • The court must provide the defendant with a financial affidavit and direct the defendant to complete it
  • The court must inform the defendant that he or she may be jailed immediately if the court finds that he or she has willfully failed to comply with the court’s prior repayment orders
  • The court must inform the defendant that he or she is entitled to counsel for the final hearing in which incarceration is a possible outcome and appoint counsel if the defendant desires and cannot afford counsel
  • The court must explain the issues that need to be decided and the process to be followed at the final hearing
  • A defendant, facing possible incarceration, have counsel, or execute a waiver of counsel, at the final hearing

The Supreme Court’s ruling dealt with a case where an individual was found innocent of two crimes, but the Office of Cost Containment convinced a judge to order the individual to pay for the public defender he used and when the individual did not appear in court, the agency sought to have the individual put in jail for three days.

The judge refused to jail the individual, ruling that the verdict extinguished the case and vacated any jurisdiction he had. The Supreme Court ultimately did not agree with the judge about the lack of jurisdiction, but did concur that the Office of Cost Containment needs to follow the new law.

Knowing that they could be jailed for failing to pay a public defender may force some people to choose not to be represented by an attorney, said a law professor from the University of New Hampshire, who filed am amicus brief in support of the defendant.


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