Fifth Circuit Rules that Fines-and-Fees System in New Orleans Criminal Court is Unconstitutional

Money

Earlier this year, a panel of federal judges ruled that New Orleans’ criminal fines and fees system ran afoul of the constitution. The reasoning, the court argued, is that the monies collected are used to support the court’s general fund. The funds are overseen by the criminal court’s judiciary.

The District Court’s Decision:

In the fall of 2018, a U.S. District Court held imprisoning people for failure to pay court fines and fees without investigating their ability to pay violated the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, the district court found it a violation of the Constitution to give judges the power to determine a person’s ability to pay when these debts help cover the court’s operating budget. The court found this violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The losing party appealed the issue of whether judges could determine a person’s ability to pay fees while having spending authority over revenue generated from the fines and fees.

The Appeals Court’s Decision:

Six criminal defendants filed suit claiming they were jailed simply because they could not pay fines and fees to the court. The New Orleans-based appeals court ruled in favor of the group. The appellant argued the lower court used the wrong standard when interpreting decisions regarding institutional biases, distinguishing the “average man” from the “average judge.” The appeals court disagreed.

The court noted that when the judges oversee the money that is collected, it is too easy to make a biased decision on a person’s ability to pay fines and fees. Notably, the general fund is not used to pay the judges’ salaries. Instead, it was used to pay for office supplies, conferences, staff salaries, building and equipment maintenance, jury expenses, insurance, transcripts and other costs.

Fourteenth Amendment to U.S. Constitution:

Generally speaking, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution contains three major provisions:
1. Citizenship clause: Granted citizenship to all individuals who were born or naturalized in America;
2. Due process clause: Declares that a state cannot deny a person life, liberty or property, without the due process of the law; and
3. Equal protection clause: Declares a state may not deny someone within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

When a person is unable to pay court fines or fees, like the six criminal defendants in the New Orleans’ case, they end up in “debtor’s prisons.” This practice has had a long history of criticism and is often cited as causing debilitating cycles of incarceration and reincarceration for minorities and the poor. For more information on this issue, click here.