Attorney General Becerra Argues to California Supreme Court That Unaffordable Court User Fees Are Unconstitutional

Thursday, December 10, 2020
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SACRAMENTO – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra today announced filing a brief in People v. Hernandez (Kopp), currently before the California Supreme Court, arguing that the imposition of unaffordable court user fees — which primarily serve to raise money for court processes and are not tied to culpability — on indigent criminal defendants statewide is unconstitutional. In the brief, the Attorney General asserts that the current system violates equal protection rights guaranteed under the California Constitution, unjustly exposing defendants to harsh societal and financial consequences based solely on their economic circumstances.

“Pushing low-income criminal defendants into debt just to go through the court system does not further the cause of justice,” said Attorney General Becerra. “Our criminal justice system cannot be blind to the economic realities of our people and society. Bottom line: Nobody deserves to be punished more harshly because they are poor. As Attorney General, I respectfully ask our state Supreme Court to make that principle a reality in trial courts across California. Unaffordable court fees imposed on impoverished Californians belong in the past.”

Under California law, defendants convicted of a crime may face a variety of court-imposed financial obligations. However, these user fees may have very different consequences for defendants of different means. An obligation that can be quickly and easily paid off by a defendant who is gainfully employed or has money in the bank may be impossible for another defendant to ever satisfy without great personal and familial sacrifice. In the context of civil user fees, this fact is already recognized and individuals are exempt from paying fees to support court processes if they do not have the means to do so. Civil user fees are waived by filling out a simple form. In the brief, the Attorney General urges the California Supreme Court to extend similar protections to defendants facing user fees in criminal cases. The brief notes that in contrast to a fine used for the purposes of punishment, user fees are solely used for the purposes of raising funds to support court functions and are not directly aimed at furthering justice. Ultimately, the act of assessing a fee that a defendant cannot pay will not by itself bolster court security, subsidize court operations, or improve court facilities. Those goals can only be advanced when a person actually has the means to pay. As a result, the current system creates a disconnect between the purpose of the fees and the mechanism being used to achieve it.

With regards to the circumstances in People v. Hernandez (Kopp), the trial court sentenced Hernandez to a term of 81 years to life imprisonment and imposed seven financial obligations designed to serve different functions. Some were primarily to punish and deter illegal and societally harmful conduct, whereas others served essentially as user fees. For financial orders meant to punish, there are well-established legal precedents that take into consideration a defendant’s ability to pay and those factors may be justifiably outweighed in relation to the specific offense and offender. In contrast, there is no established, statewide scheme in the criminal context to guarantee such protections when it comes to user fees imposed on indigent defendants. The brief argues that to the extent that courts are failing to consider inability to pay in levying criminal fees and to make the appropriate adjustments, such a system is irrational and violates the defendant’s equal protection rights. The user fees levied in this case against Hernandez included standard fees, such as:

  • A court operations and security fee of $120;
  • A court facilities / immediate critical needs account fee of $90; and
  • A criminal justice administrative fee of $154.

Attorney General Becerra is committed to improving public safety and the criminal justice system by advocating for reforms across the state and the nation, and working with local authorities to implement new policies. In August, following a request by the Attorney General, the California Supreme Court issued an order requiring trial courts to take into account an individual’s circumstances and ability to pay in setting bail pending final resolution of a case currently under review. He also pushed back on an unlawful revision of Florida’s felon re-enfranchisement law, which restricted voting rights for people who are unable to pay court fines and fees. In July, the Attorney General issued a report on the Sacramento Police Department’s policies and practices aimed at building public trust and ensuring safe, effective, and procedurally fair policing. In June, Attorney General Becerra called for a wide range of statewide police reforms, encouraging leaders across the state to actively work toward achieving lasting, forward-thinking, and comprehensive reform. Last year, he secured an agreement with the Stockton Unified School District and its police department to address system-wide violations of the civil and constitutional rights of African American and Latino students, and students with disabilities. In 2018, as a result of the Trump Administration abandoning its role, the Attorney General stepped in at the request of the City of San Francisco and the San Francisco Police Department to provide independent oversight of the police department’s reform efforts. 

A copy of the brief filed in People v. Hernandez (Kopp) is available here.

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