Fines, Fees, and the Soaking of the Poor

Recently, I drove about 300 miles round trip to attend traffic court in a rural Black Belt county in Alabama.

My client is a homeless veteran of the US Army. He served honorably, returned home and worked hard at a relatively low wage job, but unfortunately became involved with drugs and alcohol and his life went off the rails. During his decade long addiction, he got into a fair amount of minor trouble – traffic infractions mostly, including a misdemeanor DUI. He lost his job and became homeless.

A couple of years ago, my client was lucky enough, and determined enough, to enter an intensive addiction therapy program at the Veterans Administration in Birmingham. Initially, he attended long sessions every day, and was tested weekly. He worked hard and was dedicated to recovery. Months later, he moved to a new, less demanding phase of the program, but continued to attend groups more often than the monthly session required of him. He also began participating in work therapy, spending about 30 hours a week helping the VA police with traffic control and patient assistance. He lives in an apartment that is fully subsidized by HUD/VASH, but expects to start paying rent once he can find regular employment.

His problem is one that many recovering addicts, former inmates, and other low income groups often confront. Those old traffic offenses came with fines that he has no ability to pay. His inability to pay resulted in warrants for his arrest. Outstanding warrants mean he can’t get a driver’s license, which makes it pretty hard to get a job. And no one is hiring someone with warrants, anyway,

A couple of months ago, I filed motions to remit fines and recall warrants for my client in two neighboring rural counties. In one county, I was able to talk with the DA before filing the motion, and he agreed to the relief I requested. The unopposed motion was granted without a hearing. I never was able to get in touch with the DA in the other county, so I filed my motion and it was set for hearing.

I arrived at the courthouse early, and watched the courtroom fill up with about 60 people who also had traffic or petty misdemeanor cases. None of them appeared to have an attorney. I was dismayed when the deputy read out the docket to discover that my case was at the end. Over the next few hours, I watched and listened as the judge called each person up to the bench to discuss his or her case. In many cases, the judge seemed to be trying to help people, patiently explaining court documents and procedures, sending people who had failed to bring necessary evidence off with instructions on what to bring back. In several instances, though, I heard the judge admonish obviously low income people that if they did not come up with the money to pay their fines, they were going to jail. No inquiry was made into their ability to pay. Those who protested that they could not were told they better figure it out. The judge asked several people if they had friends or family members who could give them the money. What I never heard was any suggestion that the person being threatened with jail had a right to representation, or that community service might be an alternative to being jailed for not having money to pay a fine. On the contrary, one man who asked if he could work off his fines was told he could work them off in jail.

At long last, the courtroom was cleared of everyone but the judge, the DA, and me. The DA took a moment to review my motion and the accompanying affidavit from the VA counselor, and informed the judge that he had no objection to remitting all fines and recalling all warrants. I guess being last worked to my advantage – in all likelihood, neither the court nor the DA wanted all those other defendants to hear the relief my client was to receive. On the drive back, I could not help wondering how differently all those other cases might have turned out if the defendants had representation, or if the court took their indigency into account.

There is a huge hole in our justice system that is sucking the life out of many low income communities, and that is not being addressed by lawyers. Public defenders or appointed counsel provide representation for those charged with serious crimes that are supposed to carry the possibility of jail time. Pro bono lawyers volunteer to provide representation in civil cases (though certainly more volunteers are needed). Low income people charged with minor offenses are falling though the cracks, and their lives are being profoundly affected.