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Missouri Supreme Court Holds Probation Revocation for Nonpayment of Court Costs Unconstitutional

by Mark Wilson

The Missouri Supreme Court sitting en banc ruled that a sentencing court improperly revoked a defendant’s probation for failing to pay court costs without first inquiring into the reasons for his failure to pay.

On July 31, 2008, William Fleming pleaded guilty to two counts of domestic assault. The court sentenced him to concurrent seven-year prison terms on each count. It suspended execution of the sentences and placed Fleming on probation for five years. The court also imposed $4,263.50 in court costs and ordered that he pay those costs within the first three years of probation.

Throughout his probation term, Fleming received treatment for “mental health issues,” collected Supplemental Security Income payments, and remained unemployed. Fleming’s probation officer repeatedly noted that he was struggling financially and lacked the ability to pay the court-ordered costs.

During a September 9, 2011 probation revocation hearing, the court found, based on Fleming’s admission, that he had violated the probation condition requiring him to pay his court costs within three years.

The court deferred final disposition of the matter until an April 12, 2013 hearing. While acknowledging that people should not “be sent to prison because they can’t pay their court costs,” the court determined that Fleming failed to comply with his probation condition despite the court’s willingness to work with him. It concluded that its only option was to revoke his probation and imposed his suspended seven-year prison term.

The sentencing court made no inquiry or findings as to whether “Fleming had the ability to pay, and, if so, whether he willfully refused to do so or whether he failed to make bona fide efforts to acquire the resources to pay his court costs.”

The Missouri Supreme Court reversed. Following the reasoning and principles articulated in Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), the Court held that the “sentencing court violated Mr. Fleming’s due process and equal protection rights when it improperly revoked his probation for failure to pay court costs without first inquiring as to the reasons for his failure to pay, making findings as to whether he willfully refused to pay or failed to make bona fide efforts to acquire the resources to pay, and considering the conditions he has already satisfied or other alternative measures of punishment.”

The Court ordered Fleming discharged from his sentence of imprisonment and restored to his status as a probationer. Finding that his probation term would have expired July 30, 2013 if it had not been improperly revoked, the Court directed that “the only options for the sentencing court are either to discharge Mr. Fleming or to reinitiate revocation proceedings.” See: State ex rel. Fleming v. Missouri Board of Probation and Parole,515 S.W.3d 224 (Mo. 2017). 


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