Push to limit waivers of court fees will require at least 615 mailed notices monthly

The state's judicial system has rolled out a workaround for a potential logistical nightmare that legislators dropped into the latest state budget.

Posted Updated
Travis Fain
RALEIGH, N.C. — The state judicial system has rolled out a workaround for a potential logistical nightmare that legislators dropped into the latest state budget.

As part of an ongoing effort to cut down on how often some judges waive court fees and fines, the General Assembly's Republican majority required notices to be mailed to every state or local entity that gets a portion of those fees so they could potentially contest the waiver in a hearing.

In some jurisdictions, that list would add up to more than 20 notices, multiplied by an unknown number of criminal court cases. Statewide, the list includes 615 state and local entities requiring notice, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts, which provides guidance and handles some administrative functions for court clerks and judges across the state.

So, instead of local clerks notifying every affected entity before a judge considers waiving court fees, the AOC plans to mail a standard letter to all 615 groups once a month, according to guidance that went out last week to clerks, judges, prosecutors and public defenders. That letter will include the internet address of the state's online courts calendar and tell officials that fees could be waived at any criminal hearing on the calendar.

Local jurisdictions can send additional notices if they like, but the guidance doesn't require that. It says they should work with local entities, particularly if they request different or more frequent notice. Wake County's chief judges sent a letter to local governments this week telling them to expect the AOC notices and telling them to reach out to the Wake County District Attorney's Office if they have questions.

It's unclear whether the AOC's plan will pass muster with GOP legislators who pushed for the notice requirement, which takes effect Dec. 1. The proposal was a Senate priority, and Sen. Warren Daniel, who co-chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said last week that the legislature's legal staff has been asked to analyze the AOC's plan.

"We do want to make sure they're complying with the spirit of the provision," said Daniel, R-Burke.

Advocates for the poor have characterized the requirement as one more effort to fund the courts and other government functions on the backs of people who can't afford to pay.

The Charlotte Observer reported this month that more than 300 people locked up in the Mecklenburg County jail on any given day are there solely because they didn't pay fines or other penalties attached to criminal cases. That's 18 percent of the jail's average daily population, the newspaper said.

A statewide version of that statistic wasn't immediately available. Cristina Becker, who focuses on this issue for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said not all counties collect data like Mecklenburg County, but she is sending out open records requests in an effort to track these numbers.

Meanwhile, about 933,000 North Carolinians have their driver's licenses suspended either because they owe the courts money or they failed to show up for trial, according to the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

Court clerks told WRAL News they're glad the AOC plans to handle notices. Otherwise, Wake County courts would have had to notice as many 19 government entities, though the total would have varied depending on which court fees were being waived.

In Johnston County it would have been 24 entities. The courts in Anson County, population 26,000, would have owed notices to 16 entities, including the four state agencies that get portions of these fees and the various local towns and police departments in the area.

The AOC itself is funded by court fees. It will not mail notices to itself, spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell said.

Under the law, these notices must go out via first-class mail. At 49 cents a stamp, the AOC figures each monthly round will cost $301.35. Mecklenburg County Clerk of Superior Court Elisa Chinn-Gary told WRAL News in June that she tried to persuade General Assembly leaders to allow electronic notices, but the idea was rebuffed.

"My hat's off to AOC for helping us with what was going to be a really large, cumbersome process," Forsyth County Clerk of Superior Court Susan Frye said last week. "I just don't feel like there's going to be a lot of people coming to protest (fee waivers). They'd have to send an employee to 100 counties."

Daniel said the new requirement was meant to encourage judges not to waive fines "as a matter of course." Legislators have been working this issue for years, passing a law in 2011 that required judges to include a written finding of just cause in the case file any time they waive a fee.

In 2014, the General Assembly began requiring the AOC to catalog waivers, tracking them by judge and producing a regular report.

In its guidance last week, the AOC asked District Court and Superior Court officials to keep track of the entities that contest waivers, as well as the costs incurred sending out extra local notices and "any other difficulties with administering this new provision." The AOC said in its letter that leadership had hoped the legislature would scrap the notice requirement altogether during one of several short legislative sessions this year following final passage of the budget.

"Implementation of this provision poses numerous operational difficulties for our criminal courts," the AOC said in the letter. "The NCAOC has examined multiple options for compliance over many weeks. Each new idea seems to bring its own set of operational/legal issues."


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