California Violating Rights of Poor Defendants By Forcing Them to Pay Court Fees, Appeals Court Rules

A state Appeals Court in California has ruled that the state is violating the civil rights of low-income defendants by attaching court fees to misdemeanor criminal convictions without determining the defendants’ ability to repay the debts.

A homeless woman had been charged $220 after she was convicted of driving with a suspended license as a result of unpaid traffic tickets that had been incurred years earlier, and the fine had been placed with a collection agency for repayment.

Imposing fines without considering whether the defendant is able to repay the debt “simply punishes her for being poor,” wrote Justice Laurie Zelon in the ruling, adding that the fines can affect an individual’s credit, ability to get a job, and overall ability to rehabilitate.

The California legislature suspended the practice of suspending driver’s licenses when individuals were not able to pay their tickets, but there are still thousands of individuals who were impacted by the law before it was changed. One woman spent 141 days in jail because she was unable to pay her fine, according to a published report.

“…using the criminal process to collect a fine she cannot pay is unconstitutional,” wrote Justice Zelon in her ruling.

In overturning the lower court’s ruling, the Appeals Court ordered the lower court to hold a new hearing, taking into account the individual’s ability to repay the debt.

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