Raleigh, N.C. — 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.