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Could Unpaid Court Fees Send You to Jail?

Davontae Sanford was 14 when he was sent to prison for murders he did not commit. When he was 23, another man confessed to those murders and his nine-year nightmare appeared to be finally ending.

Then, he got a bill from the court.Restitution-300x238

When it came time for his release, Sanford’s wrongful imprisonment resulted in just over $2,000 in court costs and fines that had yet to be paid. These fines and costs included fees for a public defender who represented him when he was charged with another crime while in prison. Word reached the corrections officers that Sanford had hinted he would hang himself. When those officers stormed his cell to prevent his suicide, he kicked one of the officers and spat on another, resulting in two years being added to his sentence. The court ruled that if he were to pay the fines, those years would be wiped from his sentence.

Had it not been for the generosity of a nameless donor who wrote a check for his bill, Sanford would still be in prison. Could fines and court costs affect your case?

Fines and Costs As Part of Your Sentence

In Sanford’s case, his fines and fees would not have been imposed had he not been wrongfully convicted in the first place because he would not have been in prison where the assault against the officer took place.

In California, if you are convicted of a crime, paying restitution to your victim could be part of your sentence. For many inmates, a portion of the restitution fee is paid by labor performed while in prison or through deposits made by friends and family into a trust account. However, upon release, you may still have a large amount of your restitution payment still left unpaid.

The Return of the “Debtor’s Prison?”

“Debtor’s prisons,” which is the practice of throwing people in jail for unpaid debt, are supposed to be illegal in this country. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that a judge cannot send someone to jail or prison for unpaid fines or fees unless he or she “willfully” refused to pay. However, the court’s ruling does not define “willfully,” leaving it up to judges to determine whether a person has refused to pay the debt even though he or she has the means to do so.

The good news is that the US Department of Justice appears to be on the side of the people who are unable to pay. In March, Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch, sent a letter to state court administrators strongly advising judges to consider alternatives to jail for poor defendants who cannot pay their fines. However, the bad news is that the Attorney General can only recommend this course of action and cannot force states to change how they treat unpaid court costs.

Can You Go to Jail for Unpaid Fines and Fees?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not crystal clear. While debtor’s prisons are illegal, a court can order payment of fees and costs to be made. Failing to follow a court order can be considered contempt of court, which would allow the judge to send you to jail. In practice, this does not happen often in California, but it is a possibility.

Call a Wallin & Klarich Criminal Defense Attorney Right Away

The transition back to free society after a stay in jail or prison can be difficult, even without having unpaid court fines and costs hanging over your head. We may be able to help. At Wallin & Klarich, our skilled team of attorneys has been successfully helping clients like you for over 35 years. Let our knowledgeable attorneys help you, too.

With offices in Orange County, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside, Torrance, West Covina, Victorville and Ventura, there is an experienced Wallin & Klarich criminal defense attorney available to help you no matter where you are located.

Contact our offices today at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free phone consultation. We will get through this together.

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About Wallin & Klarich

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Wallin & Klarich was established in 1981. Over the past 32 years, our law firm has helped tens of thousands of families in their time of legal need. Regardless of whether our clients faced criminal or DUI charges, the loss of their driving privilege, or wanted to clean up their criminal record, we have been there to help them.