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Budget language targets court fee waivers for poor defendants

Posted June 25

— A new paragraph in the General Assembly's just-approved budget would make it harder for judges to waive court fees for indigent defendants, requiring a new hearing that could involve more than 15 government agencies.

The procedure is so administratively burdensome that at least one court clerk, along with advocates for the poor, said they assume it's an attempt to end these waivers altogether.

"This is just another way to prevent the judges from doing that," Wake County Clerk of Superior Court Jennifer Knox said. "It makes the process to waive a court fee so burdensome."

The budget language forbids judges from waiving any fines or court costs without first providing notice to every government entity that gets funding from those fines. Clerks said that list includes the courts, law enforcement agencies, county governments, school systems and the General Assembly itself, among others.

"At a minimum, 15 (entities)," Mecklenburg County Clerk of Superior Court Elisa Chinn-Gary said.

The legislation requires notice via first-class mail and a chance to object to the waiver at a hearing. Based on caseloads, the requirement could be triggered thousands of times a week.

"This would be a huge increase and burden on an office already overburdened," Chinn-Gary said.

Sen. Shirley Randleman, R-Wilkes, a former clerk of court herself, said the court system and schools simply need the money. Asked whether the measure was meant to end waivers, she said judges "need to seriously consider their action."

"The law is very specific," she said.

The legislature's Republican majority has scrutinized these waivers for several years.

In 2011, the General Assembly required judges to start justifying fee waivers by including a written finding of just cause with their decision. Knox said that doesn't always happen, despite the law.

The legislature passed a law in 2014 that required the Administrative Office of the Courts to catalog waivers issued by every judge in the state by name.

Clerks and others pushed back against the latest budget language and said they were disappointed to see it in the budget that cleared both chambers and is now awaiting action from Gov. Roy Cooper. Chinn-Gary said she asked that the requirement allow clerk's offices to notify affected agencies electronically instead of spending money on postage, but her request was rebuffed.

Most defendants are indigent, and this procedure "sort of ties the judges' hands," according to Cristina Becker, who fought the language on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. Forcing people who can't afford fines to pay is "essentially trying to draw blood from a stone," she said.

"When they can't pay ... they're being jailed for it," Becker said.

13 Comments

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  • John Archer Jun 26, 1:04 p.m.
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    And I repeat, no budget should EVER rely on people breaking the law, therefore being required to pay fees. I also believe that taking the decision away from judges places an unfair burden on the courts, and ends up costing taxpayers more for housing poor people who cannot afford the fees. The article even states that judges didn't always follow the current law in providing an explanation. The courts should know better than the GA what should and shouldn't be allowed in their own courtrooms. Find the money somewhere else.

  • Patrick Gentry Jun 26, 11:44 a.m.
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    Maybe I was mistaken but I never said a drivers license made me a legal expert just that speeding can cost me my livelihood. But I've noticed that your response was filled with assumptions that were inaccurate or flat out false.

    Like this assumption that counties rely heavily on fines and court fees, not even close to what was said or the truth.

    I said these fines and fees that are being waived go to the STATE and are distributed to school systems, law ebeforcement, EMS, and various other ag boxes based on a mountian of laws, regulations, and the nature of he offense.

    While I don't believe that any school, police department, or other agency depends heavily on these funds when Judges are inappropriately waving them but not waving the portion of the court fees that pay their salary is the problem.

    That's why the General Assembly is taking these actions, they tried less intrusive measures a few years back and it failed.

  • Patrick Gentry Jun 26, 11:35 a.m.
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    No I do not actually speed going down hill and more importantly if I did and got caught I wouldn't complain or make excuses about th fine and court costs.

    And most important when judges are waving fines and/or fees that are suppose to be going to the state and/or county that benefit everyone but keeping in place the local court costs that pay them personally their are words for that corruption and fraud.

    This isn't about poor people this is about the common practice of judges waving fees and court costs inappropriately.

  • John Archer Jun 25, 9:01 p.m.
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    Well, well, here we have it, the voice of expertise in the world of crime and punishment. Your CDL does not really qualify you to judge other people's mistakes. And if the state and local governments rely that heavily on these fees to fund their budgets, then what happens if all of a sudden people stop getting caught for breaking the law? These fees should be going to either crime/drug prevention programs or to other community programs in the first place.

  • Paul Shields Jun 25, 7:10 p.m.
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    WOW Mr Gentry has it all figured out. With your CDL going down hill you do not go over the speed limit at all ..... Ya ok curious what color the ski is in your world, lol

  • Patrick Gentry Jun 25, 4:55 p.m.
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    I'm glad that they are finally cracking down on this, it's been too long that judges wave fees that are suppose to be paid to the state because all they care about is local county fees.

    Those unpaid fees leave our schools, our police departments, and our communities without resources we are suppose to have and are being wantonly waived with little to no support by judges only concerned about their bottom line instead of the community they are supposedly serving.

    As far as people saying "they only went 7 miles over the speed limit" or "why are poor people being punished additionally". Y'all need a reality check, if you don't want to pay court fees than don't speed, I don't cause I hold a CDL and speeding will cost me my job. If you don't want to be burdened by a court cost than DON'T BREAK THE LAW!!

    I learned this the first time I got a speeding ticket, haven't been back in court ever again, maybe if others learned to stop breaking the law like I did, they wouldn't be complaining.

  • Dennis Daley Jun 25, 1:59 p.m.
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    In other states that follow this pattern, they rent-out those they jail as slave-labor to favored businesses unwilling to pay minimum wages.

  • Paul Shields Jun 25, 1:39 p.m.
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    so you make 7.25 ph get maybe 75.00 in food stamps. You go 7 mph over the limit and what now will go to jail. well there goes that 7.25 ph job and you have a record so there goes getting another one but hey maybe the 75 in food stamps goes up now that you are living in a shelter. Boy republicans sure do hate poor people but do not see they are going to keep them that way.....

  • Paul Shields Jun 25, 1:30 p.m.
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    My hopes are that judges do continue to give those they feel deserve a break it. They know better than us. I say Judges let the clerks office do the extra work go over budget pay overtime to get these stamped mailed letters out, maybe the Republicans can explain it better than how this was a great idea,

  • John Archer Jun 25, 1:14 p.m.
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    Think about it. For lack of a $100 court fee, we're going to make taxpayers foot the bill for a few days/weeks in jail? That makes zero sense. I like the community service idea if they can't pay.

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