Many people do not realize that when an individual receives a ticket, they are obligated to pay more than just a fine in a case. In fact, on a typical traffic ticket the fine range is $1 to $200 but the court cost, which must be paid first to the state, is $100 on average. The judge only has discretion on the amount of the fine. Even if the judge assesses a fine of $1, a defendant must pay the court costs.Grits didn't go to Harvard or get a law degree from the University of Chicago like Judge Spillane, but I know that's not the full story. Court costs CAN be waived for indigent defendants who've defaulted, and should be. As I wrote in the Statesman's comments:
Actually, court costs can be waived for indigence when defendants default. See Sec. 14 of this CLE document from the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center.For those disinclined to click through to the pdf, Sec. 14 declares that:
The city [of Austin] is currently facing litigation over debtors prison practices and refusing to waive fees for indigent defendants who've defaulted exacerbates that problem.
Maybe one way to prevent indigent defendants from going to jail would be to waive court costs when allowable instead of telling people (falsely) that it's not possible.
Judges may waive court costs in two instances:Judge Spillane also obfuscated the courts' role in waiving the Driver Responsibility surcharge for indigent defendants. He wrote: "Besides the mandatory court costs, there are other burdens affecting our courts but not part of our courts. For instance, the state surcharge program requires defendants to pay a surcharge to keep their driver’s license upon conviction of certain offenses." True enough. But what he didn't say is that judges can waive surcharges for indigent defendants, though they rarely do so. Instead, the column implies the issue simply is beyond judges' control.
If a judge waives court costs, the court should document its findings in the order of waiver.
- when teen court is granted; and
- when the court determines that a defendant has defaulted in payment of a fine and/or costs and that the defendant is indigent and performing community service under Article 45.049, C.C.P., would be an undue hardship. Arts 45.052 and 45.0491, C.C.P.
So in the end, while this column purports to express sympathy for indigent defendants jailed for fines and fees, it poses false justifications for the practice rather than acknowledge the discretion muni judges have to remedy the problem.
Whether muni judges like Spillane just don't know the law or choose to ignore their discretion to assist indigent defendants, Grits cannot say. But I do know they have more power to confront the situation than was implied in this column.