Court: Funding county jails with fines unconstitutional

Posted September 1, 2015

— The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that state lawmakers went too far in 2011 in using some court fines to help offset the cost of housing state prisoners in county jails.

Under the Justice Reinvestment Act, people convicted of misdemeanors were moved out of state prisons as of 2012 and into county jails. The law also set up a fund to help counties with the added jail costs, using a special district court fee for misdemeanor convictions and fines on some motor vehicle violations.

The Richmond County Board of Education sued over the $50 surcharge on improper equipment violations being put into the jail fund, arguing that the North Carolina constitution requires that "the clear proceeds of all penalties and forfeitures and of all fines collected ... for any breach of the penal laws" are to be "used exclusively for maintaining free public schools."

A Superior Court judge ruled in the school board's favor last year, but the state appealed, arguing that the surcharge isn't a fine, and even if it is, only the "clear proceeds" should go to the schools.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the surcharge is punitive in nature, so it is essentially a fine. The judges also ordered that the money collected from the surcharge be paid to the Richmond County Clerk of Superior Court, which would then forward the proceeds to the school district.

No estimate was available on how much the Richmond County district is owed. Because no other districts were party to the lawsuit, they won't immediately cash in on the ruling.


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