Using criminal process to collect court fees and assessments from indigents is unconstitutional

Defendants who plead or are found guilty of traffic violations and other misdemeanors are typically assessed court fees and fines under Gov. Code, § 70373, Pen. Code, § 1465.8, and Pen. Code, § 1202.4, Unpaid fines usually go to collections without further order of the court.

Courts must determine a defendant’s ability to pay fees and assessment.

The Court of Appeal ruled in People v Dueñas (285645) that when poverty is the only reason a defendant cannot pay court fee and fines, using the criminal process to collect them is unconstitutional. Its decision bars courts from imposing court fees and assessments without determining a defendant’s present ability to pay. Despite Pen. Code, § 1202.4, precluding consideration of a defendant’s ability to pay unless the judge is considering increasing the fee over the statutory minimum, the execution of any restitution fine imposed under must be stayed unless and until the trial court holds an ability to pay hearing and concludes that the defendant has the present ability to pay the restitution fine

Indigent defendants cannot be punished for being poor

 In the case considered by the Court of Appeal, Velia Dueñas, an indigent and homeless mother of young children, pleaded no contest to driving with a suspended license. The trial court placed her on probation and imposed $220 in fees and fines. Dueñas argued that imposing the fees and fine without considering her ability to pay violates state and federal constitutional guarantees because it essentially punishes her for being poor. The court affirmed that the judicial process “must free itself of sanctions born of financial inability.” (Preston v. Municipal Court (1961) 188 Cal.App.2d 76, 87–88

Dueñas is a married mother of two young children suffers from cerebral palsy, which caused her to drop out of high school. She and her husband were both unemployed.

The family’s income consists of  $350 per month in California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids cash benefits and $649 per month in CalFresh food stamps benefits. Dueñas uses all the money she receives to take care of the children, but has no bank account and no credit card. She owns only her clothing and a mobile phone, and her mobile phone service is frequently disconnected because she cannot afford the $40 per month payment.

The family has no home of their own; they alternate between staying at Dueñas’s mother’s home and the home of her mother-in-law. The electricity was cut off to her mother-in-law’s home because the family could not afford to pay the bill.

When Dueñas was a teenager, she received three juvenile citations and was assessed $1,088. Unable to pay those fines, her driver’s license was suspended.

Choice of jail time or paying a fine

Over the next several years, Dueñas incurred three misdemeanor convictions for driving with a suspended license and one conviction for failing to appear on a driving without a license. Dueñas was sentenced to 141 days in jail for driving with a driver’s license that had been suspended because she had been unable to pay her juvenile citations.

Even after serving her jail time, Dueñas remained liable for court fees associated with each misdemeanor conviction. was unable to pay those amounts, and they were sent to collections. Dueñas has no way to pay off her debt.

Court-imposed fees, bills for court appointed attorneys and punitive fines are a debt trap for the poor

Minor offense can lead to debt, court appearances, loss of employment or shelter, and an insurmountable financial burden.

According to the San Francisco Choronicle, San Francisco public defenders have started filing Dueñas-based motions for DUI clients “whenever it looks like they’re not able to pay,” said Oliver Kroll, a deputy public defender who represents misdemeanor clients. A judge ruled against one of these cases so far, and attorneys are appealing, he said. [https://www.sfchronicle.com/crime/article/Game-changing-CA-court-ruling-could-waive-fees-13781609.php?t=23c6d969a7&psid=12B1q]

The Chronicle detailed how a typical $390 fine for a DUI can escalate to over $200 with State, County and Court assessments. These amounts are unreachable for poor defendants.The

Dueñas case holds hope for relief from these draconian fines.