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Organizations file motion challenging constitutionality of court costs

North Carolina lawmakers decided earlier this year that they would make it burdensome for judges to waive court fines and fees [1] for poor defendants. A group of non-profit organizations are now challenging that decision.

The motion filed Monday in Wake County Superior Court disputes the constitutionality of court costs and is the product of a working collaboration between several organizations, including the ACLU of North Carolina [2] and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice [3].

“For far too long the legislature has gotten away with circumventing the state constitution to fund an array of state agencies on the backs of the poor,” said Cristina Becker, a Criminal Justice Debt Fellow at the ACLU of NC.

The motion states that the defendants who appear in state superior and district courts, and upon whom fees and costs are imposed, are disproportionately poor and minority.

“Thus, these costs and fees, whatever the motivation of the judge or other court actors who impose them, have a discriminatory impact and are imposed upon that portion of our population that has the least ability to shoulder this financial burden,” the motion states.

In 1995 the minimum district court “cost of court” was $41,” according to the motion. Today it is $178. In superior court, the costs have risen from $48 to $205 in the same period.

The revenue from those costs funds a number of state functions, “some related to the judicial system, some somewhat removed,” the motion states, including improving technology used in local courthouses, retirement funding for state and local law enforcement, and staffing for the Criminal Justice Education and Standards Commission.

Before Dec. 1, judges had the option to waive some court costs and fines for indigent defendants if they found and articulated “just cause.” Now judges are required to provide notice and opportunity to be heard by all government entities directly affected before waiving any court costs or fines.

The Administrative Office of the Courts has determined that 615 such entities will be notified [4] every month of cases that could involve a waiver of costs or fines.

“All of this raises serious questions about the fairness of our criminal justice system, and about its promise of
justice for all,” the motion states. “It also suggests that our criminal justice system fails to comport with basic constitutional norms, including the guarantees of equal protection, due process, the prohibition against excessive fines, and the right to counsel.”

You can read the full 25-page motion here [5].

The organizations that filed the motion are also offering the motion as a template for other attorneys throughout the state, encouraging them to use it to challenge the constitutionality of court fines and fees in every jurisdiction.

“North Carolina’s excessive court costs have created modern-day debtors’ prisons that keep people in jail simply for being poor and have a devastating impact on communities across the state,” Becker said.

Attorney Scott Holmes filed the motion in the case of Carol Anderson and Dale Herman, demonstrators arrested at the North Carolina Legislative Building for protesting House Bill 2.

The motion challenges the constitutionality of court costs on the grounds that some are being used to fund the court system, not the local school system as required by the constitution.

“This is an important step in reversing the flow of resources in the school to prison pipeline,” Holmes said. “Our Constitution requires that the fees collected in criminal cases shall fund the education of our children in public schools, not fund our courts.”

David Hall, a criminal justice attorney at SCSJ who is also part of the case, said it’s time to end the practice of burdensome court fines and fees.

“We must do everything we can to end the unconstitutional practice of funding our court system on the backs of the poor and indigent people of the state,” he said.