We know that people who are homeless 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– Colorado – Ohio . 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