A judge may remit unpaid fines and costs at any time. In certain circumstances.
I’ve written a few posts about waiving court costs. This post covered the basics, outlining the recent legislative history that expanded costs into the realm of active-punishment cases and limited a trial judge’s authority to waive them. This one discussed the changes to the way cost waivers are tracked. It also included a chart of the various statutory waiver provisions applicable to each type of cost.
It occurs to me, though, that I have never written much about the other process through which a monetary obligation may be excused: remission. Under G.S. 15A-1363, a defendant or prosecutor “may at any time petition the sentencing court for a remission or revocation of the fine or costs or any unpaid portion of it.”
The statute permits the court to remit the fine or costs “in whole or in part” or to modify the method of payment, but only in three circumstances. Those are:
- That the circumstances which warranted the imposition of the fine or costs no longer exist;
- That it would otherwise be unjust to require payment; or
- That the proper administration of justice requires resolution of the case.
Is remission really just a waiver by another name? I don’t think so. The authority to remit is spelled out in its own statute, separate from the cost-waiver provisions in G.S. 7A-304. More generally, I view a waiver as a front-end decision to excuse a monetary obligation that would otherwise apply, while remission is a decision to forgive or reduce an obligation imposed earlier in the life of a case.
As a statutory matter, an order to remit under G.S. 15A-1363 does not require any special written findings, while an order to waive costs may be done only by written order, supported by findings of fact and conclusions of law, determining that there is just cause to do so. G.S. 7A-304(a). Does that mean the court may avoid the “just cause” findings altogether simply by remitting costs instead of waiving them? G.S. 15A-1363 does say that a defendant or prosecutor may petition for remission “at any time.” Perhaps that includes sentencing. On the other hand, the enumerated grounds for remission appear to contemplate some break in time between the imposition of the obligation and the decision to remit. The official commentary on the law from the 1977 Criminal Code Commission supports that reading, saying that the first two grounds for remission set out in G.S. 15A-1363 “go to changed factual circumstances or changed ability of the defendant to pay.”
Regarding the third grounds for remission—“that the proper administration of justice requires resolution of the case”—its purpose according to the official commentary “is aimed at the situation in which an unpaid fine will apparently go unpaid forever and the court wishes to close the case.”
That calls to mind a situation that that catches people by surprise from time to time. When a person’s probation period comes to an end with monies remaining owed, the monetary obligations are not automatically excused. Sure, if no violation report was filed before expiration, then the court will not have jurisdiction to find a violation related to the unpaid amounts, and the person will not suffer any criminal sanction as a result. But the money nonetheless remains owed. And the failure to pay it by the end of the case may trigger the $50 failure to comply fee and, in motor vehicle cases, a driver’s license revocation. G.S. 20-24.1. Even when the court terminates probation as a reward for the defendant doing a good job under supervision, the monetary obligation remains unless the court affirmatively remits it. With that in mind, a judge who wishes to excuse all of a defendant’s obligations related to probation, including costs and fines, should remit them and then terminate.
A couple final technical details in G.S. 15A-1363 bear mention. First, the statute says a petition to remit is to the sentencing court—not just any judge can do it. Second, the authority to remit applies to costs and fines, but the statute makes no mention of restitution.