NC Chief Justice provides relief for people with court fines, fees in new COVID-19 order

Justice Cheri Beasley

North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley signed an order yesterday that will grant relief to people who have court fines and fees, among other penalties.

The order outlines seven directives to help with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, including extending the postponement of most court hearings to June 1. The biggest news and win for criminal justice advocates, though, comes with the announcement about fines and fees.

Beasley offered retroactive relief for anyone with court fines and fees issued 40 days prior to April 6 by ordering court clerks not to report past due information to the DMV, which suspends driver’s licenses for failure to pay. She also extended the due date of any fines and fees assigned to people between April 6 and May first by 90 days.

“Chief Justice Beasley continues to exhibit exceptional foresight in her leadership of the judicial branch during this public health crisis,” said Daniel Bowes, Director of the Fair Chance Criminal Justice Project at the NC Justice Center. (Disclosure: NC Policy Watch is a separate project of the Justice Center.)

Bowes said directing clerks, in particular, not to report failures to pay court debt to the DMV was a much-needed response to the exceptional logistical and financial hardships caused by COVID-19.

Quisha Mallette, an attorney on the same team, said the new development will offer temporary relief to hundreds of thousands of North Carolina residents who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, in addition to the individuals already burdened with criminal justice debt because they cannot afford to pay fines and fees.

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 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.

When a crime or infraction is committed, fines are used by the court system as a punishment. The money collected from fines goes to the public schools. District Court costs – which include traffic offenses and misdemeanors – add up to $173, and Superior Court costs add up to $198. But that’s only a baseline; there are other costs associated with court in many cases, including attorney fees, restitution and jail fees. There’s even a $250 fee associated with community service.

Beasley has already signed several emergency orders postponing most cases in superior and district courts for 30 days and instructing local officials to take steps to limit the risk of exposure in courthouses. She also postponed eviction and foreclosure hearings.

“Judicial officials and court personnel statewide are going above and beyond to serve the public during this health emergency,” she said in a news release. “My number one priority is to protect them and the public by limiting gatherings and foot traffic in our county courthouses, while making sure our courts stay available to serve the public.”

In addition to postponing court hearings again, other directives in the Thursday order include:

• Continuing to direct clerks of court to post notices at court facilities discouraging entry by those infected with COVID-19
• Authorizing court proceedings to be conducted by remote audio and video transmissions
• Directing attorneys and others without business before the court to avoid court facilities
• Allowing use of a sworn statement under penalty of perjury rather than notarization for court filings and oaths
• Allowing service of court documents by email

Beasley and Attorney General Josh Stein also released a joint statement Friday regarding access to the courts for victims of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beasley said she is committed to ensuring the courts continue safeguarding constitutional rights and providing protection to those who need it. They are working to better use technology to allow more remote hearings and electronic processing of documents so that the courts can continue doing that important work in a way that also protects the safety of our court personnel.

Stein said that while sheltering in place helps keep the community safe from COVID-19, it puts others in greater danger.

“Some North Carolinians are just not safe at home – and we must do all we can to protect them,” he said. “I am proud to work alongside Chief Justice Beasley in this effort to keep North Carolinians safe.”

The rest of their joint statement:

“Throughout the nation, as we work to implement social distancing to protect against the threat of widespread COVID-19 infection, we must remain mindful of the dangers that social isolation presents, particularly when it comes to domestic violence

In North Carolina and across the country, many people are at higher risk of domestic violence as a result of these important public health measures. Some parts of North Carolina have seen an increase of domestic violence calls to law enforcement during the pandemic. The High Point Police Department, for example, reports a 21% increase of domestic violence calls in March compared to the same time last year. On the other hand, we have heard from domestic violence service providers that they are seeing a decrease in calls, perhaps because victims are in close quarters and unable to call for help.

As Family Service of the Piedmont recently noted, ‘Historically, incidents of domestic violence and child abuse increase at times when people are experiencing more time together in their homes…’ We also know that economic pressures and potential increased substance use also lead to more domestic violence.

Chief Justice Beasley has taken decisive action to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a March 13, 2020 order postponing most district and superior court proceedings to reduce the spread of the virus. Critically, the directive exempted certain proceedings, such as those seeking emergency relief in domestic violence matters and those protecting the constitutional rights of defendants. We encourage all judges to hear these matters as expeditiously as possible. In the coming days, Chief Justice Beasley and the Administrative Office of the Courts will continue to provide additional guidance to judges and clerks to make sure that these matters can be heard without delay.

During this time period, the State is working to place signage in all courthouses to ensure that domestic violence victims know they have continued access to the courts.

While it is essential that courts remain open for victims of domestic violence to seek protective orders under Chapter 50B, we also recognize that going to the courthouse may increase the risk of infection, and victims may be reluctant or unable to do so. Electronic filing is available to domestic violence victims in a number of counties through local service providers, and we are committed to expanding the use of technology in our courts to ensure the needs of victims are met.

Yesterday, Chief Justice Beasley issued an order allowing protection order proceedings to go forward via videoconference and by telephone when necessary. Doing so will protect those in need of protective orders, ensure the due process rights of defendants, and slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The Chief Justice and Attorney General are also committed to jointly pursuing ways, by legislation and otherwise, to ensure domestic violence victims have access to the protections provided by our court system, including expanding access to electronic-filing for people seeking protective orders.

North Carolinians who may be victims of domestic violence should know that there are service providers across the state available to help. Please call anytime, day or night, the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.”

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NC Chief Justice provides relief for people with court fines, fees in new COVID-19 order