Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Advocates offer pro tips on how to combat burdensome court fines, fees

The People’s Convening on Fines and Fees in North Carolina kicked off a campaign over the weekend to end the practice of saddling poor people with overburdensome court fines and fees.

The two-day event, held at Bennett College in Greensboro, informed attendees about court fines and fees and how they operate in the state, and they allowed impacted individuals to lead discussions. They also proposed solutions and encouraged community members to get involved on the local level.

Below is the information they provided for people to take action.

Court data and the experiences of impacted people show that people involved in North Carolina’s criminal justice system — especially people of color — are too often being set up to fail because of their inability to pay the range of costs that have become attached to virtually every aspect of the criminal justice system, including reentry.

The collateral consequences of criminal justice debt are often long-term, severe, and economically crippling: indefinite driver’s license suspension, violations and extensions of probation, wage garnishment, tax liability, property forfeiture, bankruptcy, civil judgments, liens, and incarceration. People, families, and communities of color disproportionately and more severely experience these costs and collateral harms. 

Outlined below are several education and advocacy efforts that can be pursued in your community by impacted people and their allies, including you. For regular updates on campaign activities and additional materials, please visit https://www.endcriminaljusticedebtnc.org/ and https://ncsecondchance.org/.

  1. Establish a program to eliminate traffic court debt and restore driver’s licenses. 

In NC, failing to pay a traffic ticket causes an automatic, indefinite suspension of a person’s driver’s license. Court data reveals that traffic court costs are very rarely paid after two years of nonpayment. In 2019, district attorneys in Durham and Mecklenburg led initiatives to eliminate millions of dollars in long-term traffic court debt and thousands of driver’s license suspensions. The debt relief programs piloted in these jurisdictions can be efficiently replicated in all North Carolina jurisdictions if there is support from local court officials, including district attorneys, district court judges, and clerks of court.

Local decision-maker(s)/advocacy target(s): district attorney, judges, clerk of court

Contact for additional guidance/support: Laura Holland, NC Justice Center, laura@ncjustice.org, 919-861-1462

Materials and other resources: https://ncsecondchance.org/resources/second-chance-mobility-starter-packet/ https://sites.law.duke.edu/justsciencelab/

  1. Revise the local bail policy to be fairer, reduce pretrial confinement, and comply with the statutory restrictions on secured money bonds.

North Carolina law provides a common-sense procedure for determining conditions of pretrial confinement that only allows a judge to impose a secured cash bond if the judge determines the person is a flight risk, poses a danger of injury to any person, or is likely to tamper with evidence. Unfortunately, many jurisdictions have substituted these statutorily established procedures and considerations with unfair and problematic bail schedules that imposed specific secured cash bond amounts by default based on the charged offense. In 2019, several jurisdictions have piloted bail policies meant to reduce pretrial confinement.

Decision-maker(s)/advocacy target(s): senior superior and chief district court judges, district attorney

Contact for additional guidance/support: Jennifer Marsh, Self-Help, Jennifer.Marsh@self-help.org, 919-956-4692

Materials and other resources: https://cjil.sog.unc.edu/areas-of-work/bail-reform-2-0/

https://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/bail-reform-in-north-carolina-what-are-the-options/ https://www.rstreet.org/2019/04/25/how-a-north-carolina-county-became-a-laboratory-for-bail-reform/

  1. Promote regular use of petition and order forms by local court officials to facilitate fair consideration of a person’s ability to pay a fine and/or fee at sentencing and prior to imposition of any sanction for failure to pay.

Several statutes provide judges the authority to waive and otherwise eliminate fines and fees in a broad range of circumstances, including inability to pay, change of circumstances, and “proper administration of justice”. For several reasons, judges are rarely using their authority to eliminate fines and fees, including the absence of petition and order forms in a court system that is purposely reliant on standard forms. Jurisdictions can adopt local forms based on the templates linked below.

Decision-maker(s)/advocacy target(s): senior superior and chief district court judges, district attorney

Contact for additional guidance/support: Whitley Carpenter, Forward Justice, wcarpenter@forwardjustice.org, 919-323-3889

Materials and other resources: https://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/a-swiss-army-form-for-fines-and-fees/ https://ncsecondchance.org/resources/template-forms-motion-and-order-to-waive-remit-fines-and-fees/

  1. Use court facility fees to establish a municipal fund to help people pay criminal justice debt.

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Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

NC advocates call for ‘common sense’ democracy reform

North Carolina advocates called on their elected leaders Friday to pass needed reform to combat corruption and strengthen democracy.

Melissa Price Kromm, Director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, La’Meisha Whittington with the N.C. Black Alliance and Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause N.C., gathered on the front lawn of the General Assembly and called for the passage of the For the People Act (HR1) in Congress.

The measure is a comprehensive set of anti-corruption, election security and political reforms that directly respond to the issues raised in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. The U.S. Senate voted yesterday to acquit Trump on articles of impeachment.

“We have to keep fighting at all fronts,” Kromm said. “We are here to say enough is enough; we will fight for democracy; we will save our country, because that’s what true patriots do.”

Whittington said it became very clear during the impeachment trial that the political system is broken. She said that the nation needs to focus on removing barriers that prevents access to the ballot, updating voter systems and securing election infrastructure.

“This act ensures fair maps, automatic voter registration and other common sense democracy reform,” she said.

The advocates also called on North Carolina legislators to pass similar democracy reforms, in addition to ensuring that voters are informed of the money behind elections, strengthening revolving door laws and enacting nonpartisan redistricting reform.

Phillips pointed out that lawmakers are still not discussing redistricting reform, even after being forced by the courts to redraw both the legislative and congressional voting maps because of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.

“If this year comes and goes and nothing is done, the people will notice,” he said. “Until we get [redistricting reform], we’re going to have a lot of problems with our democracy.”

The time to act is now, Phillips added.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Next week: Two-day event aims to find solutions to rising court fines, fees

Court fines and fees have long burdened North Carolina residents convicted of even the most minor crimes and traffic violations, and the cost is only increasing.

The North Carolina Fines and Fees Coalition wants that to change. The multi-organizational group consists of community members, attorneys and researchers across the state who are working to end the criminalization of poverty and ultimately, the funding the court system on the backs of the poor.

The People’s Convening on Fines and Fees in NC, co-hosted by the NC Fines and Fees Coalition and the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program, will serve as the official campaign launch to “End Criminal Justice Debt in North Carolina.” It’s a two-day event that starts at 11 a.m. Friday, Feb. 14 and ends at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15.

“The convening will provide space to define the issue through simulations and panel discussions led by directly-impacted people with input from local and national advocates,” the website for the event states. “We will then work towards solutions by highlighting current practices and proposing innovative ideas to implement change in NC. We hope this convening will serve as an opportunity to expand our coalition and develop a base of supporters across NC whose voices and participation will be vital to the success of the campaign.”

North Carolina has steadily increased the breadth and harshness of court fines and fees over the years. In addition, in 2014, legislators passed a statute that requires the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to report how many court costs, fines and fees are waived by county and by judge. It resulted in a large decline in the amount of debt waivers issued across the state.

To compound that result, lawmakers passed a law in 2018 specifying that no court may waive or remit all or part of any court fines or costs without providing 15 days’ notice and an opportunity to be heard to all government entities affected by the monetary collection.

It’s had a chilling effect on court debt waivers, and individual judges have steadily decreased the number of waivers they issue.

“Tackling a challenge as systemic and burdensome as court fines and fees requires a fully informed, on-the-ground understanding of how it impacts real people in real American communities,” states the Feb. 14 event description.

Individuals who are interested in attending the People’s Convening on Fines and Fees can still register for the event (online here), which will be held at Bennett College in Greensboro. It’s free to attend and there is travel and lodging assistance available.

Note: The North Carolina Justice Center, the parent organization of NC Policy Watch, is a member of the Fines and Fees Coalition.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Legislative defendants still arguing about gerrymandering case they lost, this time in 4th Circuit

Think North Carolina’s voting maps are settled? Think again. Attorneys for Republican lawmakers went before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals today and argued to have the Common Cause v. Lewis case moved from state court to federal court — even though it’s already been decided in state court, and the State Board of Elections has prepared for the elections under the newly-drawn maps.

The Common Cause case was filed in November 2018 and challenged partisan gerrymandering in legislative districts as a violation of the North Carolina Constitution. Republican legislative defendants already tried once, unsuccessfully, to move the case to federal court. The case before the 4th Circuit in Richmond today is the appeal of that effort.

A three-judge panel from Wake County Superior Court ruled unanimously in September that the districts were illegally gerrymandered for partisan gain, violating the State Constitution, and they ordered new districts be drawn. The newly-drawn state House and Senate districts were adopted shortly after for the 2020 election, and primary election voting is now underway.

The 4th Circuit three-judge panel presiding over the appellate case is Judge Roger Gregory, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz — both appointed by former President Bill Clinton — and Judge Julius Richardson, a President Donald Trump appointee.

Oral arguments from the case have not yet been posted, but will be available on the 4th Circuit website within one day.

“It’s baffling why the legislative leadership is wasting taxpayer money on this appeal,” said Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause. “The Supreme Court told us gerrymander challenges are best handled at the state court. So we did that and won. [It’s] time for leadership to stop spending tax dollars on frivolous challenges and work with all of us for reform.”

The three-judge panel that presided over the case in state court ordered the legislative defendants last week to pay the plaintiffs $102,343.89 in the Common Cause case. More than $69,000 of that will be paid to the Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer law firm for deposition costs and expert witness fees and the remaining more than $33,000 will be paid to court-appointed referee Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford Law professor.

The costs will be paid with tax dollars and don’t include the cost of the legislative defendants’ attorneys.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

SCOTUS conservatives give temporary go ahead to Trump’s immigrant wealth test

The U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority will allow the Trump Administration to move forward with a wealth test that would deny green cards to immigrants who the government believes might make use of public benefits, such as food stamps and Section 8 housing.

The high court’s 5-4 decision is temporary (and doesn’t apply to the state of Illinois) as litigation over the “public charge” rule continues in many courts across the country. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was nominated by President Donald Trump, wrote the opinion granting the government’s request to stay a nationwide injunction out of New York, but he didn’t weigh in on the merits of the case.

He did, however, take the opportunity to complain about the judicial patchwork of rulings out of trial courts around the nation, and noted that none really mattered much “at this point.”

“Today the Court (rightly) grants a stay, allowing the government to pursue (for now) its policy everywhere save Illinois. But, in light of all that’s come before, it would be delusional to think that one stay today suffices to remedy the problem,” Gorsuch wrote. “The real problem here is the increasingly common practice of trial courts ordering relief that transcends the cases before them. Whether framed as injunctions of ‘nationwide,’ ‘universal,’ or ‘cosmic’ scope, these orders share the same basic flaw – they direct how the defendant must act toward persons who are not parties to the case.”

The public charge rule was set to go into effect Oct. 15, 2019, before five trial judges entered injunctions blocking it. “Public charge” is a term that refers to immigrants who the government believes will rely on public assistance. The new rule expands the definition of who would be considered a public charge so that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can “ensure applicants [for lawful admission to the country] are self-sufficient,” according to the 837-page document.

It changes “green card” criteria to allow harsh scrutiny of an immigrant’s financial resources when deciding whether to allow them to obtain legal status in the U.S. One of the factors that will be considered (and make it more difficult for legal immigrants to obtain permanent resident status) is whether they use or are likely to use public benefits, like non-emergency Medicaid, SNAP food assistance or Section 8 housing.

The new rule will consider a number of factors, including age, health, family status, education, and skills in determining whether a green card applicant is more likely than not to become a public charge at any time in the future.

“Nearly every sector of society has gone on record in opposition to this morally repugnant and legally dubious regulation, and for good reason: its implementation will hurt countless of immigrant and citizen families, and we’re all worse off as a result,” said Marielena Hincapié, Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center. “This move by the Supreme Court is deeply disheartening and harmful for our low-income communities of color and our democracy. But it only strengthens our resolve to continue to fight — both in the courtroom and along with our communities — for a future in which every family can thrive.”

Kate Woomer-Deters

Attorneys, advocates and experts have emphasized that the new rule will only apply to a small group of immigrants, and does not affect children of immigrants who are using public benefits.

There are three specific benefits the new public charge rule applies to: non-emergency Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and public housing. Under old guidance, and also included in the new rule, the government will also scrutinize the use of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The rule does not apply to U.S. citizen children, pregnant women and children who use Medicaid or humanitarian categories of immigrants, including asylees, refugees, victims of trafficking and others.

“There should be virtually nobody dropping out of benefits because of this rule,” said Kate Woomer-Deters, senior attorney for the Immigration and Refugee Rights Project at the North Carolina Justice Center (the parent organization of NC Policy Watch).

She said programs that are not considered negatively by DHS are critical ones that individuals should continue using, like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the Affordable Care Act, FEMA aid, free school lunches and emergency Medicaid.

Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for any of the benefits included in the rule, so they already do not use them. The rule also does not apply to green card holders because they’ve already passed the public charge test. The rule also will not be retroactive, so anyone who used those benefits before October of this year will not be penalized.

Numerous organizations are working to keep immigrant communities educated about the new public charge rule to prevent individuals from dropping out of needed programs preemptively.

“The regulation itself directly affects only a small number of people, but the Trump administration is counting on fear to amplify the harm,” said Olivia Golden, Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Policy. “The administration disregarded the law, the facts, and the voice of the American people to advance a brutal attack on millions of children and their families. Don’t let them win — fight fear with facts and make the best decision to protect your family. This regulation has already fueled fears that could cost millions their food, medical care, and homes.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch

Those same organizations are also reminding everyone that the fight isn’t over – they’ve vowed to fight as far as they can in the courts. There are a number of resources about the public charge rule and who it applies to. Both the NC Justice Center and the National Immigration Law Center have entire web pages devoted to the subject.

Justice Clarence Thomas concurred with Gorsuch’s written opinion, which reads more like a case against nationwide injunctions altogether than an opinion about the veracity of the public charge rule in question.

“This is not normal,” he wrote. “Universal injunctions have little basis in traditional equitable practice. Their use has proliferated only in very recent years. And they hardly seem an innovation we should rush to embrace. By their nature, universal injunctions tend to force judges into making rushed, high-stakes, low-information decisions.”

Gorsuch added later that he hopes the court gets to an appropriate juncture to “take up some of the underlying equitable and constitutional questions raised by the rise of nationwide injunctions.”



SCOTUS DHS Case (Text)