By Matt Clarke
The Texas legislature has erected such a hodgepodge of criminal court fees that even the court administrators and clerks don’t know how to apply them. These fees, which are frequently not used for their intended purposes, amount to a hidden tax on the poorest members of society ensnared in Texas’ criminal justice system.
“Sometimes, I can’t even tell my client what the bill is for,” said Austin defense attorney David Gonzales.
He is not alone. The Texas Office of Court Administration (TOCA) receives “hundreds of calls from court officials about how to assess and prioritize fines, fees and surcharges in criminal cases,” according to a report the agency published in 2009. “The sprawling number of state and local fees and court costs that state law prescribes as a result of a criminal conviction amounts to a nearly incomprehensible package.”
The fee system is so complex that people convicted of identical crimes might be charged vastly different fees, possibly violating the constitutional guarantee of equal treatment under the law.
Nor is it always possible to determine how a particular fee is actually used; typical legislative practice includes the raiding of fee accounts to balance the budget or fund pet projects. Some fees, such as the $50 clerk’s fee and $25 prosecutor’s fee, go straight into a county’s general fund where they can be used to pay for any budget item, court-related or not.Read More
The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the Eighth Circuit held on February 5, 2013 that a Missouri bankruptcy court was correct in concluding prison officials did not violate a discharge injunction by collecting money from a prisoner’s account for incarceration costs that accrued after the injunction was filed.
Missouri prisoner Zachary A. Smith became subject to an $87,830.13 judgment under the Missouri Incarceration Reimbursement Act (MIRA) on January 20, 2009, for the costs of his incarceration through March 26, 2007. The state of Missouri was also granted a judgment for reimbursement costs accruing after March 26, 2007 through Smith’s release from prison – which is unlikely since he is serving life without the possibility of parole. The judgment further allowed the state to collect 90% of all deposits to Smith’s prison account, excluding wages and bonuses earned while incarcerated.
Smith filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition on September 14, 2010 and received his discharge on March 11, 2011. In September 2012, the state seized a $45.00 deposit to Smith’s prison account pursuant to the MIRA judgment. He then filed a motion for contempt with the bankruptcy court, claiming the state had violated the discharge injunction. The bankruptcy court agreed that the MIRA judgment was void with respect to all costs accrued as of the bankruptcy filing, but held the judgment remained valid as to future reimbursement costs and that the costs incurred by the state since Smith’s bankruptcy petition were not dischargeable debts.Read More