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California Has a Debtor’s Prison

No excuse for being unable to pay fines. i.e. Being too poor = GO TO JAIL.

Until recently, courts have held there is nothing wrong with incarcerating a person who doesn’t pay court fines and fees. In other words, a debtor’s prison was sanctioned by the courts of California — inability to pay didn’t matter, and people could be put in jail for simply being too poor.

In a recent 2019 case, People v. Dueñas, the California Court of Appeal reversed a fine assessment.  As stated above, usually nonpayment of a fine, despite inability to pay a fine, is punishable with time in jail. In the Dueñas case however, the court, changing the law, held Dueñas, a homeless, indigent, mother of two convicted of Driving on a Suspended License, could not be jailed for failure to pay her $220 fine.

The Appellate Court ruled that before one can be put in jail for nonpayment of a fine, a court must consider the defendant’s ability to pay said fine. The court said levying a fine and putting Dueñas in jail, without considering her ability to pay, violated State and Federal Constitutional Rights.

Furthermore, the Appellate Court held that the prosecution has the burden to prove that a defendant can pay a fine before jail can be imposed for non-payment of fines. 

In Dueñas, the mother had cerebral palsy and due to her illness dropped out of high school, did not have a job, and had two small children. Her husband was unemployed, and her family had a monthly income of approximately $1,000 dollars. They had no bank account, no credit cards, and essentially no possessions other than the clothes on their back.

As a teenager, Dueñas had three vehicle traffic citations and a total $1,088 fine which she could not pay. As a result, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) suspended her license.

Now, as an adult, Dueñas, had several convictions for driving on a suspended license, and did not have the ability to pay the fines assessed. Based on these convictions and fines, her only choice was either “Jail or Pay”.  Dueñas was incarcerated for 141 days.

DEBTOR’S PRISON FOR BEING POOR.  Said differently, Dueñas was sentenced to 141 days in jail for driving without a driver's license, which had only been suspended because she had been unable to pay her juvenile citation fines of $1,088.

In the present case, Dueñas requested a Due Process hearing regarding her ability to pay.  The trial court refused to have said hearing.  Dueñas appealed. The California Court of Appeal ruled it was wrong to deny Dueñas a hearing, ordered the original court to have that hearing, and ordered that Dueñas could not legally be incarcerated for failure to pay said fines unless and until the prosecution proved at the hearing that Dueñas actually had the ability to pay.

Furthermore, in this court proceeding she was convicted of another driving on a suspended license (California Vehicle Code § 14601.1).  Her sentence was to pay all fines and return to the court with a valid California Driver’s License (CDL), or spend 39 days in jail. She could not pay the fine and could not obtain a CDL.  As stated above, the trial court refused to provide her a with a hearing on her ability to pay.

Post Dueñas, the California Constitution has now been interpreted to mean it is illegal and unconstitutional to punish non-payment of criminal fines with time in jail time unless sufficient evidence is presented in court showing the debtor actually has the ability to pay.

Criminal fines often begat this perfect Catch 22. We have seen this a 100+ times in our law practice. A person cannot pay a fine, and DMV suspends their license.  They cannot regain their license until they pay the fine; but they cannot pay the fine unless they go to work. They cannot get to work without a CDL, and ultimately they end up between a rock and a hard place

If you need help with a criminal matter, the Law Office of Ivan O.B. Morse offers free consultations. Contact us at (888) 865-0741 or visit our website today for more information.