Law enforcement

COVID-19 Leads Some States To Show Mercy on Petty Fines Owed

It seems unlikely that most Americans who owe fines for petty crimes will be in a better position to pay them in 60 to 90 days.

|

American justice is built to a disturbing degree on fining citizens, often very poor ones, for petty crimes. In the COVID-19 age of unprecedented unemployment, paying those fines has become harder than ever for many.

The Fines and Fees Justice Center is keeping track of states' reactions to the pandemic age. Some good news: The $1,200 checks from the federal government are being protected from garnishment for outstanding fines across the board.

Decent actions taken by states and localities when it comes to COVID-19 include:

• California is, on the state level, suspending criminal justice and most other government-owed debt collections via "wage garnishments, bank levies, and tax intercepts" (including a cessation of levies and license suspensions for child support payments) and some California localities are doing the same for their citizen-owed fines.

• Delaware has "suspended the active collection of payment for criminal, civil and traffic assessments"; Louisiana has also "suspended the requirement to make scheduled payments of fines, fees and court costs until further notice"; Oregon has similarly stopped imposing "late fees, suspending driver licenses for nonpayment, sending delinquency notices, imposing collection fees/referring new cases to collections, and issuing new garnishments."

• Florida is suspending most fine-triggered drivers license suspensions and Miami Dade County has decided that those "whose criminal, misdemeanor, or traffic payment plans are cancelled due to non payment during the timeframe that the courthouses are closed to the public, can re-enroll without any penalty or additional fees."

• Idaho is giving two-month extensions on hearings regarding fines; a couple of Georgia counties are giving 90-day extensions on municipal fines and fees; various Illinois cities and counties are giving varied length extensions or halts in interest accrual on fines due or the time they'll be turned over to collection agencies; Iowa is also suspending delinquency fees on fines owed for more than 30 days; Minnesota is acting similarly.

• Maine is "vacating warrants for unpaid fines, restitution, court-appointed counsel fees, failure to appear for unpaid fine hearings, and other failure to appear warrants"; Brooklyn, New York, has also declared "no warrants or civil judgments will be issued for unpaid court debt" for 60 to 90 days; Kentucky is also "prohibiting the arrest or detention of any person served with a warrant for nonpayment of court costs, fees, or fines, or with a warrant for a failure to appear on a violation"; Nebraska is doing similarly.

• Reading, Pennsylvania, in an attempt to cease creating new debt slaves to the city, has done a lot to make things easier, including ending late penalties, extending deadlines for challenging citations; ending new parking tickets entirely (including at meters) and no more booting cars for now.

The Marshall Project reports some of the not-so-good news for those burdened with petty fines: Cops in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, are continuing "to arrest people for failing to pay court debts—even ones more than a decade old."

Courts and governments have a strong incentive to show no mercy to poor Americans trapped in their fines and fees machinery, since, as The Marshall Project notes, "Two main sources of revenue—sales taxes from now-shuttered restaurants and bars, and traffic tickets from now-empty highways—have cratered. This comes at a time when officials are straining to pay for, among other things, desperately needed medical equipment and unemployment benefits for record numbers of laid-off workers." Some are thus in the COVID-19 age adding new reasons to fine citizens, including "for violating orders to stay at home and wear masks."

Such fines are enough to crush many poor Americans even in better times, but localities almost always think they need their payoff. More than $50 billion in such fines are due in America for either actual crimes or merely for related late fees. court costs, and interest.

One looming problem is a lot of those prophylactic measures have short time limits, and the likelihood that most Americans who owe fines for petty crimes will be in a better position to pay them in 60 to 90 days seems very small. The courts will soon either need to rethink their policies or see lots of new fines, warrants, and court cases, in a time when fines will be harder than ever to pay and shoving more citizens in jails and prisons is particularly cruel.

NEXT: COVID-19 Lethality Not Much Different Than Flu, Says New Study

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. It seems unlikely that most Americans who owe fines for petty crimes will be in a better position to pay them in 60 to 90 days.

    “Oh very well. You will be allowed to pay off your debt with public service, in this case by participating in a clinical test of experimental anti-virals.”

    1. What is the debt owed to society, by those who offend against order, dignity, and the Greater Good, by blowing, in an unauthorized manner, upon cheap plastic “lung flutes”? I do NOT know, HOW one will be called upon, to repay such a vast debt? 20, 30, 90 years in jail? I just don’t know any more…

      All that I can say, in these days of Great Peril, is, BE PREPARED to answer these questions three!!!

      And also…
      To find precise details on what NOT to do, to avoid the flute police, please see http://www.churchofsqrls.com/DONT_DO_THIS/ … This has been a pubic service, courtesy of the Church of SQRLS!

      1. You told us you eat shit, no one gives a fuck about your whining and butthurt because you fucked up and got caught

        1. Get a life, lying-trolling parasite!

          1. End your life

      2. Change Your Life Right Now! Work From Comfort Of Your Home And Receive Your First Paycheck Within A Week. No Experience Needed, No Boss Over Your Shoulder… Say Goodbye To Your Old Job! Limited Number Of Spots Open…
        Find out how HERE……More here

  2. If you can’t do the time (or pay the fine), don’t do the crime.
    Also, STOP RESISTING!

  3. tomorrow in Dallas they’re going to start fining people for not wearing masks outside, so trade-off

    1. Are full face, white hoods acceptable?

      1. If not, what about burqas?

        1. lol i told my girlfriend to buy us burqas.

          >>Are full face, white hoods acceptable?

          it *is* Dallas, so …

  4. The
    Institute for Justice
    is suing the state of Tennessee on behalf of a landowner who found not one, but two cameras installed on his acreage — several hundred yards inside his property line — by Tennessee game wardens without a warrant. One of the cameras was pointed at the back door of his tenant’s house. The Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement agents do not violate the Fourth Amendment when they engage in surveillance on the curtilage of a private landowner without a warrant (the so-called “open-fields doctrine”), but the IJ believes that such surveillance is a violation of the Tennessee state constitution.

    I’ll be following this case with interest, and I hope they prevail. Naturally, I also hope that Hester v. United States, which established this indefensible doctrine, is overturned.

  5. The Institute for Justice is suing the state of Tennessee on behalf of a landowner who found not one, but two cameras installed on his acreage — several hundred yards inside his property line — by Tennessee game wardens without a warrant. One of the cameras was pointed at the back door of his tenant’s house. The Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement agents do not violate the Fourth Amendment when they engage in surveillance on the curtilage of a private landowner without a warrant (the so-called “open-fields doctrine”), but the IJ believes that such surveillance is a violation of the Tennessee state constitution.

    I’ll be following this case with interest, and I hope they prevail. Naturally, I also hope that Hester v. United States, which established this indefensible doctrine, is overturned.

    1. Oops, the squirrels bit me. Good to see paragraphs have made a reappearance though.

    2. Sorry, but my back 40 is part of my houses and effects.

      1. The Supreme Court has ruled that open fields are not personal effects. I should get around to reading the opinion so I can understand their logic, as flawed and self-serving as I’m sure it must be.

        1. I’m not sure you’re reading what the decided correctly there. IIRC, they did not in fact “rule that open fields are not personal effects”.

  6. …Cops in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, are continuing “to arrest people for failing to pay court debts—even ones more than a decade old.”

    Someone’s not letting the soft-on-crime crowd bully them into the poorhouse!

  7. Well my state government assholes still wanted their property tax money. And I am sure if I hadn’t paid it, they would be slapping a lien on me from afar. But no breaks for me.

  8. How much mercy are states going to show when they check out their sales tax receipts from April though? All businesses are essential.

  9. American justice is built to a disturbing degree on fining citizens, often very poor ones, for petty crimes.

    Very true. But this sentence almost suggests that fines themselves are “disturbing”. It ignores the value of fines as a form of punishment. Fines are vasty preferable to jailing people that are non-violent. We should only be caging humans who inflict violence on others.

    Of course, for this to work, you have to allow people with outstanding fines to continue moving about freely. I don’t see the problem with it. The fines are the punishment. I was fined for breaking traffic laws, and I paid the fine for restoration of my good standing. It’s a simple arrangement and good for freedom.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.