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California Court of Appeal: Using Criminal Process to Collect Fines That Indigent Defendants Cannot Pay Is Unconstitutional

by Douglas Ankney

On January 8, 2019, the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District of the state of California ruled that when the only reason a defendant cannot pay a fine and court fees is the defendant’s poverty, then using the criminal process to collect the fine and fees is unconstitutional. 

On July 13, 2015, Velia Duenas, who is indigent, pleaded no contest to a charge of driving with a suspended license. The trial court placed Duenas on 36 months of summary probation on the condition she serve 30 days in jail and pay $300 or that she serve an additional nine days in jail in lieu of the $300 fine. The court also imposed a $30 court facilities assessment under Government Code § 70373, a $40 court operations assessment under Penal Code § 1465.8, and a $150 restitution fine under Penal Code § 1202.4. At a subsequent hearing to determine Duenas’ ability to pay, the court rejected Duenas’ due process and equal protection arguments that she was being punished for being poor and ordered her to pay $220 by February 21, 2019. The superior court appellate division affirmed the trial court, but Duenas’ petition to transfer the case was granted by the Court of Appeal.

The Court stated that the “‘constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection both call for procedures in criminal trials which allow no invidious discrimination between persons and different groups of persons.’” (quoting Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12 (1956)). As such, a state may not inflict punishment on indigent criminal defendants solely on the basis of their poverty. 

Even though Duenas faced only a civil judgment if she failed to pay the assessments, the Court ruled that Griffin applied to cases where defendants are not facing imprisonment, citing Mayer v. City of Chicago, 404 U.S. 189 (1971). The Court also quoted People v. Neal, 29 Cal.App.5th 820 (2018), saying, “Aggressive collection tactics can disrupt employment, make it difficult to meet other obligations such as child support, and lead to financial insecurity—all of which can lead to recidivism.”

Turning to the restitution fine, the Court determined it is meant to be punitive. People v. Hanson, 23 Cal.4th 355 (2000). However, “[t]he principle that a punitive award must be considered in light of the defendant’s financial condition is ancient.” Adams v. Murakami, 54 Cal.3d 105 (1991). Yet the statute authorizing the restitution fine states “[a] defendant’s inability to pay shall not be considered a compelling and extraordinary reason not to impose a restitution fine.” Penal Code § 1202.4(c). 

The Court found that the statute punishes indigent defendants in a way that it does not punish wealthy defendants. That is, a defendant who successfully completes probation and pays the fine has an absolute right to have the charges dismissed and must be released from all penalties and disabilities resulting from the offense. Penal Code § 1203.4(a)(1). But an indigent defendant who lacks ability to pay cannot ever avail him or herself of this right. This results in a statutory scheme that provides unequal treatment between wealthy and indigent defendants “solely and exclusively” on the basis of the latter’s poverty, the Court concluded. 

Consequently, the Court instructed: “Due process of law requires the trial court to conduct an ability to pay hearing and ascertain a defendant’s present ability to pay before it imposes court facilities and court operations assessments.” It added that although Penal Code § 1202.4 prohibits “consideration of a defendant’s ability to pay … the execution of any restitution fine imposed under this statute must be stayed unless and until the trial court hold an ability to pay hearing….” 

Accordingly, the Court reversed the order imposing assessments under Government Code § 70373 and Penal Code § 1465.8 and remanded to the trial court with directions to stay the execution of the Penal Code § 1202.4 restitution fine unless and until the People prove that Duenas has the present ability to pay it. See: People v. Duenas, 30 Cal. App. 5th 1157 (2019).  

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