A group including the ACLU of North Carolina and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice is challenging the constitutionality of court fees being levied in North Carolina.
Durham attorney Scott Holmes filed a constitutional challenge to the court costs statute today in Wake Court Superior Court, saying the state constitution requires such fees to go to public schools. Instead, he says, the revenue is funding the court system.
“This is an important step in reversing the flow of resources in the school-to-prison pipeline. Our Constitution requires that the fees collected in criminal cases shall fund the education of our children in public schools, not fund our courts," Holmes said in a statement.
His motion centers on the case of two demonstrators arrested during a 2016 Moral Monday protest at the state legislative building. Carol Anderson and Dale Herman were convicted of trespassing and have appealed their cases.
Photo by Justin Cook
About 350 people crammed into the Legislature; 84 were arrested.
According to the motion, since 1995, the minimum court fee for district court has risen from $41 to $178 and in superior court from $48 to $205. There are other costs too, for being in jail, for being under pretrial release supervision, for failing to appear in court, for expert testimony, and for a court-appointed attorney (to name a few). Some of the money goes toward technology, upkeep of judicial facilities, and retirement and training for law enforcement. Holmes says these fees are punitive and, under Article IX, Section 7 of the state constitution
, the money must go to public schools.
Holmes goes on to say that the General Assembly in recent years has passed "a number of statutes which impose almost insuperable obstacles for any judge who wants to waive or reduce costs and fees for a criminal defendant." Most recently, a new law took effect
on December 1 requiring judges to give fifteen days’ notice to state and local agencies before waiving fees for those who can't pay.
"All of this raises serious questions about the fairness of our criminal justice system and about its promise of justice for all. It also suggests that our criminal justice system fails to comport with basic constitutional norms, including the guarantee of equal protection, due process, the prohibition against excessive fines, and the right to counsel," Holmes said.
“We must do everything we can to end the unconstitutional practice of funding our court system on the backs of the poor and indigent people of the state,” said David Hall, criminal justice attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. "The burdens of court fines and fees disproportionately affect people of color, and it’s time to end this practice.”
The ACLU of North Carolina
is encouraging other attorneys to file motions challenging the constitutionality of court fees.
“For far too long the legislature has gotten away with circumventing the state constitution to fund an array of state agencies on the backs of the poor," said Cristina Becker, criminal justice debt fellow at the ACLU of North Carolina, which is part of the coalition behind the motion. "North Carolina’s excessive court costs have created modern-day debtors’ prisons that keep people in jail simply for being poor and have a devastating impact on communities across the state."
Read the motion here: