Court Costs and Fines, and Restitution, Oh My: How A Defendant’s Poverty Does Not Shield Him From Prison For Failing To Pay Financial Sanctions

During my undergrad and law school days, one of my favorite life game was ATM roulette.  For anyone out there that has never played ATM roulette it is an exciting and highly depressing game all rolled into one.  Rules are to this game are very simple.  First, find an ATM.  Second, place ATM/Debit card into said ATM.  Third, entered the desired amount of money you would like to receive.  Four, pray to the money gods that you have money in your account!  Twenty bucks went along way back in my college days!  Especially on dollar draught nights at the local pub.

Thank god for my parents who, for whatever reason, helped replenish my beer fund when it was running low.  The thought of not having beer in college is a true travesty.

Okay, all kidding aside, being broke….a real bitch right?  Not being able to buy the things you want in life or the things you want to provide your family in life can become depressing.  Take it a step further and think about not having money for life essentials or barely pulling the money together to provide life essentials.  The thought of not being able to provide food, clothes, heat, water, etc., puts knots in my stomach.

Poverty, unfortunately, on many occasions rears its head in our criminal justice system.  Our Constitution safeguards individuals in poverty or who are indigent by permitting the court to appoint an attorney on their behalf.  Even with a court appointed attorney, indigent defendants may still face financial sanctions at the end of their case.  The court, however, does have discretion of waiving certain financial sanctions due to an indigent defendant’s inability to pay financial sanctions.  That is great for those individuals, but what about those individuals who are just above the poverty line, are given court ordered financial sanctions, and in reality cannot afford the sanctions?  Can these individuals be further punished for being nothing more than poor?  A simple answer to this question is YES!

State v. Dockery, 2010-Ohio-2365,  is a great case that explains the law surrounding a prison sentence due to an individual’s inability to pay court ordered financial sanctions.

In Dockery, Dockery pled guilty to trafficking in cocaine and was sentenced to community control.  At his sentencing hearing, the judge warned Dockery that he would receive 18 months in prison for each offense if he violated the terms of his community control.  Dockery’s community control sanctions included general conditions, neighborhood direct supervision, obtaining and maintain employment, drug treatment, and the payment of fines, court costs, and public-defender fees.

Well, unfortunately for Dockery, a month later he was arrested and detained for a robbery charge.  Dockery was found to have violated the terms of his probation.  The trial court once again warned Dockery that it would impose a prison term of 18 months in each case for a community-control violation.

A few months later, Dockery’s probation officer filed a notice of an alleged violation of community control for violating certain conditions of his community control.  Among the violations were that Dockery was using controlled substances and that Dockery violated his condition to pay his fines and court costs.  Dockery was to pay $40 per month for 43 months to pay off a total of $1,703.50 in fines and court costs.  The trial court found that Dockery had violated certain terms of his community control, to include his financial sanctions.

During mitigation, Dockery explained to the judge that he did not have any money to pay the financial sanctions, he has been unable to find secure employment, has been working for a temporary employment agency, had to borrow money from his mother, was paying money on court ordered child-support, and was making monthly payments to probation and parole departments.

Without inquiring further into Dockery’s failure to pay or the appropriateness of other punishment, the trial court revoked Dockery’s community control and imposed a consecutive sentence of an 18 month prison term of incarceration.  The court was kind enough to waive any remaining fines.  Dockery subsequently appealed the trial court’s findings.

Looking at this case, the appellate court stated that a defendant’s poverty does not shield him from punishment. Williams v. Illinois (1970), 399 U.S. 235.  However, to revoke a defendant’s community control simply for the nonpayment of court costs and fees, the defendant’s “failure must have been willful and not the result of indigence.” State v. Douthard (June 29, 2001) 2001 WL 725415.  The appellate court then looked for guidance for the U.S. Supreme Court’s case Bearden v. Georgia (1983), 461 U.S. 660.

The Bearden court held that depriving a probationer “of his conditional freedom simply because, through no fault of his own, he cannot pay the fine” would be “contrary to the fundamental fairness required by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

To avoid this, a sentencing court must inquire into the reasons for the failure to pay before revoking community control on that basis. Id.  If a probationer has willfully refused to pay the fine when he has the means to pay or has failed to make sufficient bona fide efforts such as seeking employment or borrowing money to acquire the resources to pay, the court may revoke community control and sentence the defendant to imprisonment within the authorized range of its sentencing authority. Id.  Conversely, if the probationer cannot pay despite sufficient bona fide efforts to acquire resources to do so, the court must consider means of punishment other than imprisonment.  Id.  Only if these alternative means of punishment as labor or public service in lieu of the fine are not adequate to meet the state’s interest in punishment and deterrence may the court imprison a probationer who has made sufficient bona fide efforts to pay.  Id.

Based on the above findings, the appellate court remanded Dockery’s case to be heard in accordance with Bearden.

Looking at the Dockery case, the judge did give Dockery two warnings about violating community control sanctions.  However, sentencing Dockery to 18 months in prison on each count for a total of 36 months in prison does seem very harsh!  This was a little excessive for twenty-five cent crime.  The robbery charge, mentioned above, was eventually dismissed by the grand-jury for lack of prosecution.  That left using a controlled substance and not being able to pay his court costs and fines.  I think a different form of punishment would have easily satisfied the state’s interest in punishment and deterrence.



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