What if I can’t pay my tickets or fees and fines from criminal court?

We know that homeless people get charged with a lot of small crimes. Examples include loitering, panhandling, obstructing the sidewalk, trespassing, and littering. Very often, the penalty for these minor crimes is a fine—either a ticket or a fine imposed in court. The fine is supposed to be paid by a deadline.

If you don’t have the money to pay that fine and you miss the deadline, you can be charged with an additional crime which is usually called something like “failure to pay” or “contempt” in the local crimes code. This second charge might result in an additional fine or another kind of penalty such as community service or even jail time.

If the court system is able to communicate with you by phone or mail, which is not always possible when people do not have a permanent home, the payment office may contact you if you have had difficulty paying your fine. In that communication, they will likely tell you if it is possible to arrange a payment plan or an alternative to payment (such as attending a class or doing community service) if you cannot afford to pay. Being poor does not relieve you of criminal punishment; it just gives you an excuse for not paying the full fine by the original deadline. So if the court system tries to make arrangements with you, you are supposed to cooperate in forming a plan and fulfill your part of the arrangement. You may need to fill out forms or appear in-person for a conversation about your ability to pay.

You can ask for a payment plan or payment alternative as soon as your fine is assessed; you do not have to wait until they add a charge of non-payment and send you a second ticket. If you don’t give the court a way to contact you and you don’t reach out to the court before they come looking for you, these criminal charges will just stay on file until the next time you have an encounter with the police.

As these various charges and your lack of cooperation with the system mount up, so do the penalties that they can use against you. At some point, a police stop that might otherwise be uneventful will become a big deal because the officers will look you up and see that you have unresolved charges. They may take you to jail because of your outstanding charges.

 In March of 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a letter to state and local criminal courts regarding unpaid fines. The DOJ urged the court systems to confirm whether someone is financially able to pay a fine before punishing him for not paying it. It also called on the court systems to honor Constitutional due process rights. The letter spells out specific ways to honor due process: giving people notice before punishing them, giving them alternatives to payment, and not suspending their license or requiring expensive bond as the only ways of avoiding jail.

If your court system is not acknowledging your inability to pay criminal fines, your ACLU or the public defender’s office might take action on your behalf.

The ACLU published a report in 2010 about how people suffer increasing punishments after not being able to afford their court fines Subsequent to that report, state ACLU offices have produced helpful information tools for the public. Here are examples: Pennsylvania –  Washington–  ColoradoOhio .   Find your local ACLU affiliate to get instructions and other support if you cannot afford to pay a ticket or costs or fees assigned by a criminal court.

The National Association for Public Defense (NAPD) has a committee dedicated to the topic of Fines and Fees. http://www.publicdefenders.us/finesandfees Members of this committee have testified to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission about the terrible consequences that happen to people who do not have enough money to pay their criminal court fines. The Fines and Fees Committee welcomes input and offers resources to local public defenders. If you have a public defender who needs back-up to protect you from being jailed for not paying court fines, put that lawyer in touch with this group. You might like the NAPD’s Statement on Predatory Collection Practices. http://www.publicdefenders.us/files/NAPD_Statement_on_Predatory_Collection_Practices.pdf

If you aren’t satisfied with a free lawyer, what can you do?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****


Regarding free lawyers in criminal cases:

Numerous agencies and organizations speak out against inadequate legal representation for the poor.[i]  And there have certainly been lawsuits against individual public defenders as well as public defense systems for providing ineffective legal representation.[ii]  All of these sources and the legal rights they champion are either about reforming systems or else about the right to sue a court-provided lawyer after he has botched a case. They do not tell what someone can do if he is currently getting bad help from a free lawyer.

Although someone paying a lawyer could simply fire that lawyer and hire a different one, an indigent defendant might not be able to change lawyers. It is always possible to ask the court appointment system or the public defender’s office for a replacement lawyer. But they may not have spare lawyers available and they will have to be convinced that the inefficient disruption of reassigning a case is worthwhile.

To convince any legal service provider that something is worthwhile, it is wise to describe that thing in its legal context. So, when trying to convey that a different lawyer should be assigned to a case, an indigent client has to be able to convey to the head of the court appointed program or the head of the public defenders office that his legal rights are being compromised by the current lawyer and that the lawyer is not fulfilling his professional obligations.

It is not sufficient to simply make those claims; heads of legal offices are not easily convinced by anyone, certainly not by every complaining client. You have to be able to show how the lawyer is violating your legal rights.

If you think that your Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel[iii] has been compromised,

  1. explain what the lawyer is supposed to be doing: showing up for meetings, listening to your full story, collecting evidence on your behalf, figuring out how your actions differ from the crimes charged, comparing your situation to past cases, and generally contradicting the prosecutor’s claims in any legitimate way
  2. provide proof of the lawyer’s failure to fulfill these obligations: copies of helpful evidence that he has not used, descriptions (or recordings) of meetings and phone calls in which he has ignored you, a copy of the court’s docket sheet showing that deadlines were missed, affidavits from witnesses who are willing to testify but have not been contacted by the lawyer etc…

If you think that your right to due process has been compromised,

  1. demonstrate the characteristics of proper process: use copies of the defenders’ office’s brochures or Web pages to prove what they claim they’ll do for defendants; bring examples from the ACLU and the Southern Center for Human Rights cases and fact sheets to show what indigent defendants can reasonably expect from their lawyers;[iv] present the ABA’s Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System as recognized standards.
  2. Provide proof that either the office’s standards or those principles identified by legal professional organizations like the ACLU and the ABA have not been applied in your case.

Only with clear direct standards and examples will you be able to convince your lawyer’s boss that in the middle of your case it is already evident that your legal counsel is not effective or adequate.

The Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System
American Bar Association

  • 1. The Public defense function, including the selection, funding, and payment of defense counsel, is independent.
  • 2. Where the caseload is sufficiently high, the public defense delivery system consists of both a defender office and the active participation of the private bar.
  • 3. Clients are screened for eligibility, and defense counsel is assigned and notified of appointment as soon as feasible, after client’s arrest, detention, or request for counsel.
  • 4. Defense counsel is provided sufficient time and a confidential space with which to meet with the client.
  • 5. Defense counsel’s workload is controlled to permit the rendering of quality representation.
  • 6. Defense counsel’s ability, training, and experience match the complexity of the case.
  • 7. The same attorney continuously represents the client until completion of the case.
  • 8. There is parity between defense counsel and prosecution with respect to resources and defense counsel is included as an equal partner in the defense system.
  • 9. Defense counsel is provided with and required to attend continuing legal education.
  • 10. Defense counsel is supervised and systematically reviewed for quality and efficiency according to nationally and locally adopted standards.

If you are not satisfied with an attorney assigned by the legal aid office to help you in a civil case, what can you do?

The legal relationship between clients and legal aid offices is contractual, just like the relationship between paying clients and their private attorneys. And the attorneys who work in legal aid offices are supposed to have the same skills and desire to give their clients the best possible legal representation as the private-pay attorneys. If the lawyer is not providing adequate representation, a client’s best strategy would be to handle it like any other consumer complaint.

The legal aid office might have a formal process for filing complaints. If they don’t have a process, writing a letter is the best way to let them know that you want better service. The letter can be addressed to the lawyer on the case as well as the office supervisor. Like the complaint about inadequate criminal representation described above, this letter should identify exactly what actions have been unsatisfactory and what risks you predict if the lawyer is allowed to continue representing you in that way.

If the case is already over and you believe that you lost because of the lawyer’s incompetence or negligence, you can sue him for legal malpractice claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. In that case, it would be necessary to prove that the lawyer failed “to exercise the ordinary care of a reasonably competent attorney acting in the same or similar circumstances”[vi] and that you lost the case because of that failure. You can also file a professional ethics claim against a bad lawyer. Ethics claims are brought before the state attorney licensing office, not in court.[vii]

[i] The Southern Center for Human Rights has published many reports and articles about inadequate representation of criminal defendants http://www.schr.org/reports/index.htm; The American Bar Association published a comprehensive report after conducting hearings about court-provided criminal defense programs. The report is titled “Gideon’s Broken Promise.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has fought many important cases on behalf of poor people who did not get adequate criminal defense help from public defenders or court appointed lawyers.  The ACLU’s Web site has sample court documents, fact sheets, and news stories.[ii] Cases about ineffective public defenders include Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963); Miranda v. Clark, 319 F.3d. 465 (9th Cir. 2003); Powers v. Hamilton County Public Defenders Commission docket # 02 CV 00605 (S.D. Ohio 2005) (Brought by clients who were jailed after not being able to afford court costs.)  For broad policy concepts, see the American Bar Association’s page about indigent defense systems. http://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_aid_indigent_defendants/initiatives/indigent_defense_systems_improvement.html

[iii] Cuyler v. Sullivan, 446 U.S. 335 (1980) and U.S. v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984) are two cases that explain adequate and effective legal representation.

[iv] The ACLU no longer publishes a full site about indigent defense information, but your nearest chapter likely has lots of relevant fact sheets and legal pleadings. http://www.aclu.org/affiliates  The Southern Center for Human Rights’ indigent defense information is at http://www.schr.org/reports/index.htm.

[v] The ABA’s Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System are available at http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/migrated/legalservices/downloads/sclaid/indigentdefense/tenprinciplesbooklet.pdf. The electronic document includes explanatory comments and references to related ABA professional standards.

[vi] 7A CJS Attorney and Client §327.

[vii] The American Bar Association’s Center for Professional Responsibility links to states’ legal ethics codes and attorney licensure offices. http://www.abanet.org/cpr/links.html

How Can You Get a Free Attorney?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Courts provide free attorneys only in criminal cases, when defendants cannot afford to hire attorneys.[i] They do not provide lawyers for poor people involved in civil cases.

Legal Aid offices provide free legal representation in civil cases,[ii] but litigants have to find those legal aid offices on their own.[iii] Legal Aid offices come in many forms; they might serve a particular demographic group (for example, women) or work on a limited range of issues (for example disability law). They might be available through bar associations, law schools, social service agencies, or simply as independent non-profit organizations. Usually, both criminal courts and legal aid offices use the federal poverty guidelines[iv] to determine whether someone is eligible for free legal assistance.

In some jurisdictions, there is a pool of lawyers who work full time in the criminal court system and are paid by the court system to defend accused criminals who cannot afford to hire a private attorney. Those pools of lawyers are known as public defenders. In other jurisdictions, the court system contracts, either with the entire criminal defense bar, or else just the criminal defense attorneys willing to participate, to pay lawyers to represent criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys.[v] In these systems, the lawyers’ names are on a roster and the court clerk simply assigns the next person on the roster as soon as a low-income criminal defendant is in need of representation. That kind of system is a court-appointed attorney system.

In many jurisdictions, the public defender’s office is backed-up by a court-appointed system when there are too many cases for the public defense team to handle.

[i] U.S. CONST. Amend. VI. This constitutional provision plus summaries of major cases interpreting it are at http://supreme.justia.com/constitution/amendment-06/index.html and at http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/amendment06/.[ii] The federal government established the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to fund legal aid offices that provide non-criminal legal services for indigent people throughout the country. The LSC Web site http://www.lsc.gov/ has a thorough online library of resources for self-help litigants and those seeking or suing legal aid offices. The site also has numerous reports and studies about free legal services for the poor.

[iii] Three electronic sources for locating your local legal aid offices are LawHelp http://www.lawhelp.org/, Justia http://law.justia.com/, and Findlaw http://www.findlaw.com/14firms/legalaid.html.

[iv] The Department of Health and Human Services publishes the federal poverty guidelines at http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/index.shtml.

[v] The American Bar Association provides a chart showing how each state’s indigent criminal defense is structured. The chart also cites the state’s indigent defense statutes. http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/downloads/sclaid/indigentdefense/statewideinddefsystems2005.pdf The ABA also provides reports about state spending on indigent defense systems and sets for the fundamental principles for indigent defense systems at http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/sclaid/defender/home.html.

Does it cost money to make a court case?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

It does cost money to file a case in court though it does not cost money to file a response to a case whether it is a criminal case or a civil case. When someone comes in to file a case, the court clerk’s office charges a fee just for filing the initial document. Then there is a fee from either the court or the sheriff’s office for delivering a copy of the initial document to the opponent. After the first document in a case, each party in a case has to pay the costs of photocopying and mailing his documents to both the court and the opponent.

Then there are various kinds of costs associated with collecting and presenting evidence: Witnesses have to be paid. Scientists who analyze evidence get paid. Photographs and videotapes cost money to produce. Depositions, which are interviews with witnesses or opponents, have to be transcribed by a court reporter who has to be paid. Copies of pages from medical records can get pricey. The expenses go on and on, at least for people representing themselves or hiring private attorneys.

Litigants represented by legal aid offices, public defenders, or court-appointed attorneys do not have to pay these costs; the law offices will pay for everything. Litigants who do represent themselves in court can at least get the court’s fees waived if the court deems them to be in forma pauperis, in the form of a pauper, without the financial ability to pay the court’s costs. The courts require people seeking in forma pauperis status to file a motion declaring and demonstrating their poverty. Nearly every court clerk’s office and Web site has a fill-in the blank form to use for that procedure in their court. There is also a standard form for claiming in forma pauperis status included in virtually every publication containing the court’s rules. [i]

[i] Federal court forms for in forma pauperis motions are at http://www.uscourts.gov/uscourts/FormsAndFees/Forms/AO240.pdf.  If that particular form doesn’t show up, go to the main forms page for the federal courts.  http://www.uscourts.gov/FormsAndFees.aspx   State courts’ Web sites can be reached from http://www.ncsconline.org/D_KIS/index.html.

Are there any rules about what you can say and do in court?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Just as there are numerous court rules for documents, there are also many rules for behaving and presenting in court. The basic understanding about courtroom decorum is that anyone who comes to court to argue a case will show respect for the court by demonstrating self-control, communicating precisely, and following the court rules. Even spectators have to behave according to court standards. Usually, this means being quiet, standing when the judge enters, and not interrupting the court proceedings. But in Minnesota, the Supreme Court ruled  in August, 2015 that people cannot even enter the courtroom to watch a case unless they present photo identification. This ruling did not mention homeless people, but it will result in excluding some homeless people from watching cases.

Not showing respect for the court, by talking out of turn or disregarding the judge’s standards, etc… can be seen as showing contempt for the court. If the judge does consider behavior as contemptuous, he can have an offending gallery member removed from the courtroom and an offending litigant fined or jailed.

In addition to basic decorum, rules of evidence are very important in the courtroom. These are the rules that govern what kind of proof each party can present. The limitation preventing irrelevant information from coming into a case is an example of a rule of evidence.

Another important evidence rule is the hearsay rule. In federal courts and in state courts there is always some version of a hearsay rule saying that witnesses in court can only testify about what they have experienced; they cannot testify about things they heard other people say.

There are some exceptions to hearsay rules. Words spoken by someone about to die can be presented in court by a surviving witness. Documents kept in the regular course of business can be presented as evidence on their own, without their author being present. Usually, there are between twenty and twenty-five exceptions to a court system’s hearsay rule.

Another important rule to know about is the character evidence rule which says that descriptions of a person’s character are not allowed to be entered as proof that he did what he is accused of doing. For example, when a defendant is accused of committing fraud (misrepresenting facts to someone who lost money relying on those facts) a witness cannot be brought to say, “Jimmy’s a liar. He lied to me about the condition of his lawnmower when I bought it from him.” That sort of testimony might get the jury to assume that the defendant committed the fraud just because this person from years ago knew of his lying in a completely different situation.

Because of the prejudices and misconceptions that exist about homeless people, it is necessary to listen for innuendos about laziness or dishonesty or irrationality that a court opponent might be trying to state as evidence of a homeless person’s character.

Dealing with the rules of evidence gets especially tricky because there is an understanding that an opponent might not mind if the other party wants to present hearsay or an unauthenticated object or a surprise. So, litigants are required to notify the judge, during a trial, when they object to the presentation of evidence that violates the rules.

They do this by immediately declaring something like, “your honor, I object to the prosecutor’s question because it invites the witness to talk about something irrelevant to this case.” Then, the judge makes an instant decision about whether the attempted evidence presentation would violate the rules. If the judge sustains the objection, it means that the evidence will not be allowed. If the judge overrules the objection, it means that the evidence will be allowed because it does not violate the rules.

In order to properly communicate with the court and opponents in a lawsuit, you have to follow court rules.The four basic categories of court rules are:

  • Rules of Civil Procedure
  • Rules of Criminal Procedure
  • Rules of Evidence
  • Rules of Appellate Procedure

The rules are available from numerous sources:

  • The court’s Web site:

Federal http://www.uscourts.gov/courtlinks/

State http://www.ncsconline.org/D_KIS/info_court_web_sites.html


If you are looking for print sources instead of electronic sources, look in libraries for paperback books of court rules or for the print versions of the statutory codes.

In addition to the official rules of court, every judge has standards for behavior in the courtroom. Some judges like the participants to introduce themselves in a particular way. Some judges don’t allow lawyers and pro se litigants to tell stories to set a scene. Some judges demand a conference in chambers to try to settle the case instead of having a trial.

To be sure that litigants satisfy these preferences, judges generally publish them in their biographies on the court’s Web site or mail them in a letter to each party. A litigant who does not live at an address might be able to receive court-related mail in care of a social service agency where he regularly receives services. As an alternative to that, or in addition to it, he can ask the judge’s clerk if the judge has any courtroom behavior preferences.  A homeless litigant can also make arrangements to check-in with the judge’s clerk on a weekly basis to find out whether any scheduled events have changed or to see if the opponent has filed new documents, or if there is any other kind of news or activity connected with his case.

Where do you find out how to write documents for court?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Legal forms can be accessed from http://forms.justia.com/. Another strategy for locating court forms online is to look for a link to “documents” or something similar on the court’s Web site. http://www.ncsc.org/Information-and-Resources/Browse-by-State/State-Court-Websites.aspx The Law Librarians Resource Exchange maintains an easy interface for locating state and federal court rules and forms at http://www.llrx.com/courtrules.

Documents filed in court should be typed and submitted on clean paper. This is not always a rule or a legal requirement, but it is an expectation. Courts will often accept handwritten documents as long as they contain the necessary information and are submitted to the proper office at the appropriate time. Lawyers, who are professionally obligated to show respect to the court, always file typewritten documents.

Filing neat and properly executed documents not only shows respect for the court, it also provides the opponent with the clearest possible presentation of your message.Generally, all court documents must have a caption on the first page and must be in specific order, depending on the purpose of the particular document. The caption usually tells who is suing whom and lists the name of the court, the date of the filing, and the docket number for the case. The docket number is assigned when the first document of the case is filed with the court clerk. On all documents filed after the first one, litigants must include that docket number so that their documents get filed with the same case.

There are lots of books full of sample legal forms. Law libraries will have those books. Typically, they can only be used as examples. It is rare to find a book’s fill-in-the-blank form that will be accepted by a court. Sometimes, court’s Web pages have sample forms and those can be filled-in online or else printed and filled-in. Since almost all documents filed in court become part of the public record, another way to see how to write documents is to copy and modify someone else’s pleadings.

To do so, go to the court clerk’s office and ask if there is a way to search for cases according to topic (negligence, assault, breach of contract, etc…) If there is a way for you to do that, allocate a few days in which you can dedicate yourself to looking for and reading through the documents filed in cases similar to yours. The clerk’s office will have coin operated copy machines or computer printers available.

No matter which resources tell you how to write a court document, you absolutely have to be sure the document complies with current court rules. Every court has rules about organizing and presenting documents. In fact, every court has its own rules in addition to rules from either the state or federal court system.

The rules tell how to notify an opponent that you are suing him, how to format court documents, what kind of information is required in court documents, how much time someone has in which to file a document, what options the opponent has for responding to that document and what kind of action the court will take regarding the document (i.e. whether the clerk will file it, whether a hearing will ensue, etc…).

How do you start to connect legal research with actually proving a case?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Whether you are defending yourself in a criminal case or suing someone in a civil case, there are some basic steps to follow when making a case in court.

In criminal court, a defendant seeks to prove that the criminal charges do not match his actions, that faulty police procedures made some of the evidence inadmissible in court, and that the evidence which is presented in court does not prove him guilty.

Here is how legal research relates to those goals:

1. Read exactly how the crimes code defines that charge and think of ways to explain that your behavior does not match with that definition.[i]

2. Examine each item of the opponent’s proposed evidence against the rules of evidence.[ii] Investigate how the police obtained that evidence and how they handled it once they had it.

3. Look at the decisions in previous cases about that same charge to see how people successfully defended themselves and to see how the courts comment on the crimes code.[iii]

4. Having read the decisions in previous cases, show how your situation differs from the cases in which people were found guilty.

In a civil court case, such as a breach of contract or a negligent injury claim, a plaintiff generally seeks to prove that whomever he’s suing owed him a promise or a duty, that the promise or duty was not upheld, and that he has suffered harm or losses because of the opponents actions or inaction.

Here is how legal research relates to those goals:

  • 1. Read books, legal encyclopedias, sample jury instructions, American Law Reports, and other explanatory sources to see how to depict the duty or obligation. Those sources should lead you to statutes, regulations, and cases. In case they are incomplete, look in the indexes to statutes and regulations and in case digests using every relevant word to be sure you locate all applicable law.
  • 2. Using case references from those explanatory sources, read case decisions to get examples of what was necessary to prove that duties were breached.
  • 3. Consult the big practitioner sets mentioned in the last text box (Causes of Action, Am Jur Trials, Proof of Facts) for help thinking about how to prove the extent of your harm or loss and how to prove your opponent’s connection to your harm or loss.
  • 4. Look for books about the legal topics that apply to your case. There are helpful books about landlord-tenant law, contract law, criminal law, etc… All of these will be in the KF call number sections of libraries. If the bar association offers continuing education for lawyers, they might publish the practical training materials from those sessions and sell them to libraries. Three good Web sites that tell about proving legal issues are Justia http://www.justia.com/, Findlaw http://www.findlaw.com/, and Nolo Press http://www.nolo.com/.

[i] State criminal codes are available at http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/table_criminal_code. Federal crimes are available from the House of Representatives at http://uscode.house.gov.
[ii] Federal rules of evidence are at http://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/fre/. State evidence rules are at http://www.law.cornell.edu/topics/state_statutes2.html#evidence.
[iii] To find case summaries, use a state or regional case digest, such as West’s California Digest or West’s Atlantic Digest. Digests are organized in topic order. After locating summaries of cases in the digest, find the full-text of those case opinions by using the case reporter citation provided in the digest.  If you don’t have access to digests and case reporters, at least investigate the criminal charges using a legal encyclopedia. Legal encyclopedias generally summarize the main case interpretations associated with legal topics.