Curtail abusive fines and fees

Many cash-strapped local governments have turned to code enforcement and traffic tickets as a way to raise revenue. Worse, municipalities can keep the revenue they collect from fines and fees, giving them a strong incentive to aggressively issue citations. Instead of genuinely protecting the public, local governments all too often treat their residents as little more than ATMs. With budget shortfalls mounting during the current crisis, the temptation for taxation by citation will only grow.

It is no exaggeration to say the Shelby County Environment Court ruined Sarah Hohenberg’s life. In 2009, a windstorm knocked a tree onto the home she had owned outright since the mid-1990s. While Ms. Hohenberg was in a dispute with her home insurance company, her neighbors sued her in the local environmental court. After years of fighting, Ms. Hohenberg lost her home, filed for bankruptcy, and was threatened with jail – all without due process or the court even keeping records of what happened. The Institute for Justice is suing to protect her rights and those of others who have faced this abusive court.

Reporting

Cities and towns nationwide use their power to enforce traffic, property code, and other ordinances to raise revenue rather than solely to protect the public. It is “taxation by citation” when local governments use ordinances beyond solely to protect the public.

But how much is this happening? And where is it happening?

State and municipal officials should have the data to better understand an issue that is sure to become more important as our uncertain times pressure municipal budgets.

IJ’s model bill combines the best elements done by Georgia municipalities and Ohio courts. Enacting it and getting the data from it are the first steps to managing this explosive issue that only is going to grow in importance.

Reconsidering Ability to Pay Before Imprisonment

Courts routinely order those convicted of crimes to pay fines and fees beyond their means. When offenders fail to pay, they may be imprisoned, often without a hearing. In Bearden v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court held the lack of a meaningful hearing is unconstitutional.

But the requirement often is ignored for want of state-level codification. With state and municipal governments increasingly relying on fines and fees to generate revenue, it is crucial that no one is imprisoned without a court reconsidering an offender’s ability to pay and evaluating if he tried to pay.

IJ’s model bill, the Reconsidered Fines and Fees Hearing Act, compels courts to reconsider an offender’s unpaid fines and fees. Enacting it will give offenders new incentives to meet financial obligations, and may benefit the state by increasing collections and reducing prison populations.

Driver’s License Suspension

Eleven million Americans face the suspension or revocation of driving privileges because of unpaid fines and fees. Suspending and revoking licenses for the collection of court debt, and not public safety, is bad public policy. Losing a license, even temporarily, jeopardizes a person’s ability to support themself and their family. It is also self-defeating because it undermines a person’s ability to pay court debts. It disproportionately affects people of color and those in poverty, and universally may increase recidivism.

What should legislators do?

  • Sponsor legislation to repeal the suspension, revocation, or non-renewal of a driver’s license for unpaid fines and fees.
  • Avoid superficial legislative fixes, such as temporary fee amnesty or restricted licenses.
  • Empower judges to forgive or reduce court debts and penalties (1) based on a person’s ability to pay including using payment plans, or (2) in exchange for community service.

The Institute for Justice can help you identify ways in your state to end the suspension and revocation of driver’s licenses for failure to pay court debt.

Check out the Brennan Center for Justice’s report, The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fines and Fees:  A Fiscal Analysis of Three States and Ten Counties.

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Level of Government