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

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If you work at day labor or another occasional part-time work that pays you in hand and does not ask about your address, do you have to accept any amount of pay they give you?

**** 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. ****

The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act[i] does allow for the possibility that temporary and transient agricultural workers can be paid “by the piece” (more likely by the bushel or section of a field), but generally the answer to this question is no, you do not have to accept any amount of pay an employer gives you.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)[ii] requires that every worker be paid at least a certain hourly rate known as “the minimum wage.” Even the piecework rates in temporary agricultural jobs have to pay at least as much as workers would get at the hourly minimum wage rate.  The minimum wage rate is set by the Wage and Hours division of the U.S. Department of Labor. You have to get at least the minimum wage for working up to forty hours in a single week. Your state might have an even higher minimum wage than the federal rate.[iii]

If you work for the same employer for more than forty hours in one week, you are supposed to get paid fifty percent more (per hour or other pay unit) than the rate you earned for the first forty hours. Even if you are paid in cash and the employer does not know your last name, let alone where you sleep at night, you are entitled to earn these rates of pay.  Whether you have an address also has nothing to do with your right to be properly credited for the full number of hours you have worked.[iv] Even though the IRS and the Social Security Administration don’t require temporary and day labor employers to report workers’ addresses to them (because those employers do not have to withhold income tax or FICA payments), they still have to follow the FLSA and the regulations that go with it.

The Department of Wages and Hours has a “Fact Sheet on the Construction Industry”https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs1.pdf listing some of the common ways employers in that industry, which frequently employs homeless temporary workers, try to avoid giving full credit for work time: failing to record time, claiming work over forty hours counts only as comp time instead of paying the 150% wage rate, requiring overtime hours to be held aside in a time bank, not paying for travel time to job sites, etc… All of those actions are illegal.

The Wage and Hours Division advises workers to contact the nearest DOL office[v] if work hours have not been properly credited or if they have not been paid the minimum wage. The office that you contact will investigate your situation and enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act.It would also be wise to contact an attorney for representation. Private law firms can sometimes donate their services to help homeless people get their proper pay.[vi] If none are available, contact the nearest legal aid office.[vii]

Whether your legal help comes from only the DOL office or that office along with your lawyer, you should have a log of your hours and names of witnesses who worked with you. You should also be prepared to tell every possible detail about how and where you were recruited and to name and the individuals who supervised you. Those kinds of proof are necessary to demonstrate that you truly did work at that job for the claimed amount of time.


[i] The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Act is at 29 U.S.C. 1801 and the sections following 1801.  An entire Web site about that law and the regulations that go with it. http://www.dol.gov/esa/whd/mspa/index.htm

 

[ii] The Fair Labor Standards Act is at 29USC 201. The Dept. of Labor regulations that go with it are at 29 CFR §510-794. Those laws and plain English fact sheets and other explanations about the FLSA are online at http://www.dol.gov/compliance/laws/comp-flsa.htm.

[iii] State minimum wage rates are published online at http://www.dol.gov/esa/minwage/america.htm. If that site is unavailable contact your state department of labor or navigate through its Web site. http://www.dol.gov/esa/contacts/state_of.htm

[iv] A Dept. of Labor Fact Sheet explaining how employers are supposed to count workers’ time as work time (i.e., how to know when you should be paid for breaks, waiting periods, etc…) is at http://www.dol.gov/esa/regs/compliance/whd/whdfs22.htm.

[v] The Dept. of Labor offices are listed at http://www.dol.gov/esa/contacts/whd/america2.htm and in the blue pages of the phone book.

[vi] Example: The Washington (D.C.) Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs matches private law firms with indigent clients whose civil rights have been violated. Summaries of some of their employment cases, along with the complaints they filed in court, are at http://www.washlaw.org/news/n_case_decision.htm.

[vii] Legal Aid Offices are listed at http://www.lawhelp.org/. You can also get contact information for local legal aid offices from the public library. A recent class action case was brought by day laborers who weren’t paid fairly after being transported from Maryland to Mississippi to clean up debris from a hurricane. Marroquin v. Canales, 236 F.R.D. 257 (D.Md. 2006). Find other cases by looking in any books published by Thomson West Publishing using the topic “labor and employment” and key numbers 2210 and up.