Jani Maselli Wood, a public defender in Houston who is waging an appeals court battle over the constitutionality of court costs, recently won a favorable majority opinion knocking out two court costs levied against her client.
On Dec. 30, a panel of the First Texas Court of Appeals in Houston modified criminal convictions against Wood's client Osmin Peraza to delete a $250 "DNA record fee" from the judgments from each conviction on the ground that it is an unconstitutional tax, and also deleted a $50 "sheriff's fee" for "serving capias" because there is no basis in the record to support the charge. The court otherwise affirmed the judgment against Peraza, overruling Peraza's contention that the trial court erred when denying his motion to withdraw his guilty pleas to the two charges of aggravated sexual assault.
Wood, who joined the Harris County Public Defender's Office in 2011, was selected in 2014 as one of Texas Lawyer's Winning Women for her work challenging the constitutionality of court costs. She wants the money that criminal defendants pay in court costs to directly benefit the court system.
The First Court panel deciding Peraza v. Texas consisted of Justice Terry Jennings and former Justice Jim Sharp, who lost a reelection bid in November 2014. In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Harvey Brown agreed with the majority that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Peraza's motion to withdraw his guilty pleas and that the "unsupported" $50 sheriff's fee should be struck. However, Brown disagreed that the DNA record fee is unconstitutional.
Wood said she was gratified by the court's opinion on the court cost issues.
"It's the first time they have ever held it's unconstitutional under the separation of powers doctrine, that the courts are not tax collectors," Wood said. "It was the first time they've gone along with my theory that you can't fund general government with court costs."
Thursday, January 15, 2015
'DNA record fee' deemed unconstitutional because funds hijacked for other uses
From her perch over at the Harris County Public Defender, Jani Maselli-Wood continues to peck away at the litany of court costs assessed against criminal defendants. Texas Lawyer has a report (Jan. 12) on her latest exploits: