Defendany Velia Dueñas, an indigent and homeless mother of young children, pleaded no contest to driving with a suspended license. The trial court placed her on probation, imposed $220 in fees and fines, and ordered that if an outstanding debt remained at the end of her probation, the amount due would go to collections without further order of the court. Dueñas contends that imposing the fees and fine without considering her ability to pay violates state and federal constitutional guarantees because it simply punishes her for being poor.
Dueñas is a married mother of two young children. She has cerebral palsy, and because of her illness she dropped out of high school and does not have a job. Dueñas’s husband is also unemployed, although occasionally he is able to obtain short-term work in construction. The family of four receives $350 per month in CalWorks cash benefits and $649 per month in CalFresh food stamps benefits. Dueñas uses all the money she receives to take care of the children, but she cannot afford basic necessities for her family. She has no bank account and no credit card. She owns only her clothing and a mobile phone, and her mobile phone service is frequently disconnected because she cannot afford the $40 per month payment. The family has no home of their own; they alternate between staying at Dueñas’s mother’s home and the home of her mother-in-law. The electricity was cut off to her mother-in-law’s home because the family could not afford to pay the bill.
When Dueñas was a teenager, she received three juvenile citations. She could not afford to pay the $1,088 she was assessed for these citations. Because she could not pay her debt, her driver’s license was suspended. Dueñas was unable to have her driver’s license reinstated because she could not afford the fees, and she did not qualify for the state amnesty program. Over the next several years, Dueñas suffered three misdemeanor convictions for driving with a suspended license and one conviction for failing to appear on a driving without a license case.
In these cases, Dueñas was offered the ostensible choice of paying a fine or serving jail time in lieu of payment. Each time, she could not afford the fees, so she served time in jail—a total of 51 days across four cases. Additionally, she was sentenced to 90 days in jail for driving with a suspended license. In total, Dueñas was sentenced to 141 days in jail for driving with a driver’s license that had been suspended because she had been unable to pay her juvenile citations. Even after serving her jail time, Dueñas remained liable for court fees associated with each misdemeanor conviction. In one case, she was also ordered to pay attorney fees. She was unable to pay those amounts, and they were sent to collections. Dueñas receives letters from collection agencies, but she has no way to pay off her debt.
The Court of Appeal agreed with Dueñas’ arguments. “Whatever hardship poverty may cause in the society generally, the judicial process must make itself available to the indigent; it must free itself of sanctions born of financial inability.” (Preston v. Municipal Court (1961) 188 Cal.App.2d 76, 87-88, quoted in Jameson v. Desta (2018) 5 Cal.5th 594, 623.)
“Raising money for government through law enforcement whatever the source—parking tickets, police-issued citations, court-imposed fees, bills for court appointed attorneys, punitive fines, incarceration charges, supervision fees, and more—can lay a debt trap for the poor. When a minor offense produces a debt, that debt, along with the attendant court appearances, can lead to loss of employment or shelter, compounding interest, yet more legal action, and an ever-expanding financial burden—a cycle as predictable and counterproductive as it is intractable.” (Rivera v. Orange County Probation Dept. (2016) 832 F.3d 1103, 1112, fn. 7.)
Like many who are “faced with the need to navigate the world and no feasible, affordable, and legal option for doing so” (Thomas v. Haslam (M.D.Tenn. 2018) 329 F.Supp.3d 475, 521), she broke the law and continued to drive.
The “constitutional guaranties of due process and equal protection both call for procedures in criminal trials which allow no invidious discriminations between persons and different groups of persons. Both equal protection and due process emphasize the central aim of our entire judicial system—all people charged with crime must, so far as the law is concerned, ‘stand on an equality before the bar of justice in every American court.’” (Griffin v. Illinois (1956) 351 U.S. 12, 17.)
Accordingly, a state may not inflict punishment on indigent convicted criminal defendants solely on the basis of their poverty. In In re Antazo (1970) 3 Cal.3d 100, the California Supreme Court invalidated the practice of requiring convicted defendants to serve jail time if they were unable to pay a fine and a penalty assessment. (Id. at p. 103.) “Although a direction for confinement for default in payment of a fine may appear to apply equally to both the rich offender and the poor one, actually the former has the opportunity to escape his confinement while the right of the latter to pay what he cannot, is a hollow one.” (Id. at pp. 103-104.) The California Supreme Court observed, “‘The “choice” of paying [a] $100 fine or spending 30 days in jail is really no choice at all to the person who cannot raise $100. The resulting imprisonment is no more or no less than imprisonment for being poor, . . . .’ [Citation.]” (Id. at p. 108; see also id. at p. 115 [“he was unable to obtain his freedom only because he was poor”].)
Imposing unpayable fines on indigent defendants is not only unfair, it serves no rational purpose, fails to further the legislative intent, and may be counterproductive. A fine on indigent people “is not imposed to further any penal objective of the State. It is imposed to augment the State’s revenues but obviously does not serve that purpose; the defendant cannot pay because he is indigent . . . . ” (Tate v. Short (1971) 401 U.S. 395, 399; see also Antazo, supra, 3 Cal.3d 100, 114.)
The heart of the due process inquiry is whether it is “fundamentally unfair” to use the criminal justice system to impose punitive burdens on probationers who have “made all reasonable efforts to pay the fine or restitution, and yet cannot do so through no fault of [their] own . . . .” (Bearden, supra, 461 U.S. at p. 668.)
Because the only reason Dueñas cannot pay the fine and fees is her poverty, using the criminal process to collect a fine she cannot pay is unconstitutional. Accordingly, the Court reversed the order imposing court facilities and court operations assessments, and remanded the case to the trial court with directions to stay the execution of the restitution fine until the People prove that Dueñas has gained an ability to pay.
Accordingly, the Appeal Court held that although the trial court is required by Penal Code section 1202.4 to impose a restitution fine, the court must stay the execution of the fine until and unless the People demonstrate that the defendant has the ability to pay the fine. The Court invited the Legislature to consider whether the statute should be amended to direct a trial court to consider the defendant’s ability to pay in imposing the fine.
If you are faced with a criminal matter, you need the Law Office of Robert Rodriguez to represent you and your rights!
Robert Rodriguez has represented defendants in dozens of misdemeanor and felony criminal matters including bank robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, burglary, motor vehicle theft, driving on a suspended license, grand theft, felony driving under the influence, felony domestic violence, felony drug possession and sales, 3-Strikes cases, criminal appeals, juvenile criminal court, and matters under the Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA).
* Disclaimer – Robert Rodriguez is licensed to practice only in the State of California & this analysis is applied only under State of California law. Robert D. Rodriguez is also admitted to practice in the U.S. District Courts, Central, Northern & Eastern Districts of California. Robert Rodriguez has practiced in the State of California Court of Appeal.