The Administrative Office of the Courts recently submitted two reports on criminal cost waivers to the General Assembly. The first report covers court cost waivers under G.S. 7A-304(a). The other is about costs remitted upon remand from superior court to district court under G.S. 15A-1431(h). Both reports sort waivers by district or county and by individual judge. Continue reading
Tag Archives: costs
The U.S. Department of Justice recently issued a letter regarding its “strong interest” in putting a stop to unconstitutional court fines and fees that target the poor. According to the authors, Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Department, and Lisa Foster, Director of the Office for Access to Justice, “[T]he harm caused by unlawful practices . . . can be profound. Individuals 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 DOJ sent the letter to judges and court administrators in all fifty states on March 14, 2016, directing them to review their procedures on imposing and enforcing fines and fees. An article from the New York Times states that the DOJ rarely issues “Dear colleague” letters of this sort; the last one went out in 2010 and concerned the need to provide interpreters for people who don’t speak English. Continue reading →
Earlier this year National Public Radio ran a series on court costs entitled Guilty and Charged. The general point of the series was that “the costs of the criminal justice system in the United States are paid increasingly by the defendants and offenders”—a population that is mostly poor. Missed payments often lead to more fees, interest, probation violations, and eventually incarceration.
North Carolina is no exception to the national trend. Continue reading →
A DWI conviction will cost you.
Let’s take the case of a typical defendant who has never before been charged with or convicted of DWI. I’ll call him Forrest Firsttimer.
Forrest is arrested at a DWI checkpoint. He submits to a breath test, which reports an alcohol concentration of 0.08. Forrest is taken before a magistrate for an initial appearance. The magistrate revokes Forrest’s driver’s license for a minimum period of 30 days and releases Forrest on his written promise to appear. Eleven days later, Forrest applies for a limited driving privilege pursuant to G.S. 20-16.5(p). A district court judge issues the privilege. Forrest is required to pay a $100 processing fee to the clerk upon its issuance. That’s the first item on Forrest’s bill.
1. $100 processing fee for pre-trial limited driving privilege (G.S. 20-20.2)
Then, at the end of the 30-day minimum revocation period, Forrest must pay $100 to end the civil license revocation.
2. $100 for return of license civilly revoked (G.S. 20-16.5(j))
Forrest hires an attorney to represent him in the impaired driving case. The attorney charges Forrest a flat fee of $1,000.
3. $1,000 in attorneys’ fees
Forrest pleads guilty in district court. He is sentenced at Level 5, placed on 12 months of supervised probation, and is ordered to pay a $100 fine, to perform 24 hours of community service and to obtain a substance abuse assessment and complete the recommended education or treatment.
Forrest now must add the following items to his mounting bill:4. $100 fine (G.S. 20-179(k) (permitting fine of up to $200 for Level 5 DWI))
5. $290 in court costs (This figure includes (i) the $190.00 standard costs amount for a Chapter 20 misdemeanor (G.S. 7A-304(a)(1) – (a)(4a), & (a)(9)) plus (ii) the $100.00 special costs amount for persons sentenced under G.S. 20-179 (G.S. 7A-304(a)(10))).
6. $480 in probation supervision fees (G.S. 15A-1343(c1) (establishing supervision fee of $40 per month))
8. a $100 fee to the agency that assesses his substance abuse problem (G.S. 122C-142.1(f))
9. $160 for the alcohol and drug treatment school ordered as a result of the assessment (G.S. 122C-142.1(f))
Forrest’s driver’s license is revoked for one year upon his conviction. G.S. 20-17(a)(2); G.S. 20-19(c1). He applies for a limited driving privilege at sentencing. Upon its issuance, he is required to pay $100.
10. $100 for post-conviction limited driving privilege (G.S. 20-20.2)
When the revocation year expires, Forrest will be required to pay $100 for the restoration of his driver’s license.
11. $100 license restoration fee (G.S. 20-7(i1))
Forrest’s bill now totals $2,780, but we haven’t taken into account one of his largest expenses—his increased automobile liability insurance. A DWI conviction results in 12 insurance points. That translates to a 340 percent increase in the cost of his coverage. If he paid $600 in annual insurance premiums before the DWI conviction, his premiums will now total $2,640.
11. $2,040 in increased insurance premiums
In total, Forrest’s DWI has cost him $4,820.
And his bill doesn’t include many of the substantial charges assessed in some impaired driving cases. Those include the $600.00 lab fee in G.S. 7A-304(a)(7) or (a)(8), the $600.00 lab analyst testimony fee in G.S. 7A-304(a)(11) and (a)(12), jail fees of $10 per day for pretrial confinement and $40 a day for imprisonment under a split sentence (G.S. 7A-313), and the costs of ignition interlock and continuous alcohol monitoring.
All this makes cab fare look pretty cheap.
May community service fees be waived? I suspect some of you are thinking “I hope so, because they just were,” or something along those lines. It turns out to be a tricky question, I think.
First, let me be clear about what I mean by community service. I’m talking about community service ordered as a condition of probation, either as a special condition of probation under G.S. 15A-1343(b1)(6) or a community and intermediate condition of probation under G.S. 15A-1343(a1)(2). Those two conditions are essentially the same, and both require the probationer to perform community service and pay the fee required by law for it. (When the community and intermediate community service condition was initially added to the law in 2011, it did not include any reference to the fee, but an amendment in 2012—discussed here—added one.)
Community service ordered as a condition of probation, supervised or unsupervised, generally falls under the Community Service program described in G.S. 143B-708. (There is a background question about whether a judge may order community service outside the program, but let’s leave that aside for now.) Community service through the program requires the defendant to pay a fee of $250. Under G.S. 143B-708(c), that fee “shall be paid by all persons who participate in the program or receive services from the program staff.” Only one fee is required for each “sentencing transaction,” defined as all offenses considered and adjudicated during the same term of court.
In general, a person must pay the fee in full before participating in the community service program. A small exception is that the court in which the person is convicted may give the person of extension of time to pay or allow the service to begin before payment. G.S. 143B-708(c). (Prosecutors have similar authority for community service ordered in deferral cases, and probation officers have similar authority when the service was ordered through delegated authority.) Aside from that, the statute makes no mention of any authority to waive the fee.
The absence of any reference to a waiver is noteworthy. Court costs generally may be waived for just cause under G.S. 7A-304(a) (as discussed here)—but the community service fee is not set out in G.S. 7A-304, or incorporated into it by reference. Probation supervision fees may be waived “for good cause and upon motion of the person placed on supervised probation.” G.S. 15A-1343(c1). For electronic house arrest, the court “may exempt a person from paying the fees only for good cause and upon motion of the person.” G.S. 15A-1343(c2). For attorney fees, the court has express authority to order a defendant to pay “a portion, but not all, of the value of the legal services rendered” if, in the court’s opinion, that is what the person is financially able to pay. G.S. 7A-455(a). So, the legislature certainly knows how to include waiver or exemption provision when it wants to.
On the other hand, the legislature also knows how to say expressly that a fee may not be waived. Under G.S. 7A-455.1(b), the $60 attorney appointment fee is “mandatory” and “may not be remitted or revoked by the court.” I suppose the community service fee isn’t stated as mandatorily as that. But it does use the word shall. And the court of appeals has described such fees as a “non-discretionary byproduct of the sentence.” State v. Arrington, __ N.C. App. __, 714 S.E.2d 777 (2011); see also In re Greene, 297 N.C. 305 (1979) (holding that a judge does not have inherent power to continue prayer for judgment in a case when a certain punishment is made mandatory).
Be that as it may, the fee gets waived with some frequency. I imagine that may have something to do with its growth over time. When first enacted in 1984 the fee was $50. It grew to $100 in 1986, $200 in 2002, $225 in 2009, and $250 in 2010.
Even if it may not be waived on the front end, there may be support for a later remission of the fee. Under G.S. 15A-1363 a defendant may “at any time” petition the court for remission of a “cost” or any unpaid portion of it. The court of appeals has interpreted “cost” in that context as “fees and charges required by law to be paid to the courts or some of their officers, the amount of which is fixed by statute or court rule.” State v. Webb, 358 N.C. 92 (2004). Along the same lines, any alleged probation violation tied to a failure to pay the fee might be defensible on the grounds that the defendant had a good faith inability to pay. If the defendant showed that to be the case, the judge would have authority at that point under G.S. 15A-1364(c) to reduce or remit the fee.
Jeff wrote last week about the court costs associated with traffic infractions, which are significant, even for minor traffic offenses.
As he mentioned, these costs are not the only financial burden imposed upon drivers found responsible for traffic infractions or convicted of traffic offenses. Drivers who seek representation in such proceedings also incur attorney’s fees. Another potentially significant cost, and one in the forefront of most motorists’ minds, is the increase in insurance rates that can result from traffic convictions.
Automobile insurance policies for North Carolina drivers are governed by the Safe Driver Incentive Plan, or SDIP, established pursuant to G.S. 58-36-65. The SDIP distinguishes among classes of drivers that have a record of at-fault accidents, a record of convictions of major moving traffic violations, a record of convictions of minor moving traffic violations, or a combination thereof, and provides for premium differentials among those classes of drivers. Insurers learn of traffic convictions—a term I’ll use throughout this post to refer to both convictions of misdemeanor and felony offenses and adjudications of responsibility for infractions—by obtaining records from DMV. See G.S. 58-36-65(e) (providing that “[r]ecords of convictions for moving traffic violations to be considered under this section shall be obtained at least annually from [DMV]”); see also G.S. 20-4.24(a) (requiring a state that is a member of the Drivers License Compact to report to another member state a conviction for any offense that the member states agree to report”).
The North Carolina Department of Insurance (DOI) publishes this nifty guide to the SDIP, setting forth the insurance points assigned to each type of conviction for a traffic violation and the corresponding rate of increase for those convictions and adjudications. Insurance points are different from driver’s license points assigned by the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) pursuant to G.S. 20-16. Driver’s license points matter because DMV may revoke the driver’s license of a person who accumulates 12 or more license points within three years. G.S. 20-16.5(e). Insurance points matter because of rate increases. A single insurance point, which can result from conviction of a minor moving violation, results in a thirty percent rate increase.
DOI’s guide also describes the SDIP exceptions to rate increases. No insurance points are charged for a single prayer for judgment entered per household every three years. And no insurance points are assessed for conviction of speeding 10 mph or less over the posted speed limit so long as the violation did not occur in a school zone and the person has not been convicted of another moving traffic violation within the three-year experience period.
The easiest way to avoid the assessment of insurance points is, of course, not to commit any traffic violations or cause any accidents. But even drivers who occasionally run afoul of the state’s traffic laws can avoid insurance consequences. Such drivers can seek a prayer for judgment continued or plead guilty to or responsible for an offense that does not result in the assessment of insurance points either due to an explicit statutory exemption or because the offense is not considered a moving traffic violation.
For example, no driver’s license or insurance points may be assessed upon conviction of a speedometer violation under G.S. 20-123.2, which is statutorily denominated “a lesser included offense of speeding,” even though such violations must be recorded in the driver’s official DMV record. See G.S. 20-141(o). Similarly, no insurance points may be assessed for conviction of an improper muffler or several other offenses listed in G.S. 20-16(c). Nor may insurance points be assessed upon conviction of failure to light headlamps while windshield wipers are in use. See G.S. 20-129(a)(4).
Other statutory provisions prohibiting the operation of vehicles without proper equipment are silent with respect to whether insurance points apply. See, e.g., G.S. 20-122.1(a) (requiring every motor vehicle subject to a safety equipment inspection that is operated on a highway be equipped with safe tires and making no mention of driver’s license or insurance points); G.S. 20-24(a)(requiring that every motor vehicle operated on a highway be equipped with adequate brakes and making no mention of driver’s license or insurance points). While there is an argument to be made that such violations could properly be considered moving violations since operation of a motor vehicle is an element of the offense, DMV does not consider equipment violations to be moving violations for driver’s license point purposes. My guess is that insurers interpret the SDIP accordingly and assess insurance points only for offenses deemed moving violations by DMV. Notwithstanding the lack of points, conviction of an improper equipment offense carries its own enhanced cost. An additional $50 in court costs is assessed upon conviction of any improper equipment offense. See G.S. 7A-304(a)(4b). This fee is remitted to the Statewide Misdemeanant Confinement Program, “to provide for contractual services to reduce county jail populations.” Thus, the court costs for a person convicted of an improper speedometer offense is not the $188 Jeff referenced in his earlier post; instead, the court costs total $238.