Most people have paid a fine at some point, usually for traffic violations in the form of speeding or parking tickets. Sometimes, people convicted of more serious crimes must pay fines instead of jail time. These are much more substantial than a traffic ticket. A defendant convicted of a civil or criminal offense that resulted in a financial loss may have to reimburse victims.
The purposes of imposing a fine or restitution include:
- Punishing the offender for an infraction, misdemeanor, or felony offense
- Helping to compensate the state, federal, or local government for prosecuting the offense
- Detering any future criminal acts such as fraud and other financial crimes
This article explains how courts impose fines and the differences between fines and restitution.
Sentencing: How and Why Fines Are Imposed
The sentencing judge has the discretion to impose a criminal fine on the defendant after conviction. Sometimes, the fine replaces a prison sentence or probation, although the criminal conviction and criminal record will still stand.
In other situations, the judge can sentence a defendant to a fine in conjunction with probation or time behind bars as a criminal penalty.
Judges impose fines with no accompanying prison time or probation as an alternative sentence for minor crimes and first offenses. The decision to levy a criminal fine instead of prison time or probation depends on the following factors:
- The type of criminal case (for example, a felony or misdemeanor crime)
- The severity of the criminal charges (for example, first-degree Class A or Class B felony offenses)
- The defendant's criminal history (for example, no prior offenses or only petty crimes)
- Testimony of a defendant or their loved ones about financial costs directly related to the crime
- Measures taken by the defendant to make amends and correct their mistakes (such as community service)
- Whether the state law criminal statute carries minimum sentencing requirements
- The totality of the circumstances (for example, whether the defendant was under duress or extreme stress)
Fines are often discussed during the plea bargain process. At this stage, your criminal defense lawyer negotiates with the prosecution to resolve your case without going to trial. This could result in reduced charges against you or even a reduced sentence.
Fines vs. Restitution
Both criminal fines and restitution require the defendant to pay money as punishment for a crime, but they differ in one key way. Fines get paid to the government and court system, while restitution goes to the victims of a crime for their injuries.
For example, if a graffiti artist spray-painted a public bench or traffic sign, they're fined for vandalism. On the other hand, if the graffiti artist spray-painted a homeowner's mailbox, they're expected to pay restitution to the homeowner to compensate them for the damage or cost of repairs, in addition to any fines.
Restitution is typically ordered at the sentencing hearing by the criminal court. So, crime victims seeking restitution must provide proof of expenses incurred due to the crime before sentencing. For example:
- The cost to replace stolen property
- Medical bills (including emergency services and physical therapy)
- Property damage and repair costs (quotes and/or estimates to replace doors or locks)
If a defendant objects to the restitution amount ordered, the courts will hold a contested restitution hearing. In New York, the court may consider the defendant's ability to pay before entering an order for restitution. The criminal justice system has programs such as the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program. This allows federal inmates to allocate a percentage of their prison wages toward the restitution owed.
Assessments and Surcharges
Jurisdictions vary, but even if a defendant does not receive the maximum fine amount, additional administrative fees and surcharges can result in a court debt. A mandatory surcharge is a fee imposed on a convicted defendant separate from fines and restitution.
Assessment fees arise for defendants convicted of certain offenses, such as driving under the influence (DUI cases), and drug offenses, such as felony drug possession. These cases require additional testing before admission into a court-ordered program. A chemical dependency assessment is an example.
In Minnesota, the court administrator collects a $75 surcharge on every person convicted of any felony, gross misdemeanor, misdemeanor, or petty misdemeanor offense other than a parking violation. Further, a person convicted must pay the cost for any assessment required directly to the entity conducting it. Additionally, a flat fee of $25 is imposed by statute. New York charges mandatory surcharges and fees up to $375 on all who plead guilty to a crime or are convicted.
Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have statutes authorizing mandatory assessment and surcharge fees. Oregon eliminated its unitary assessment in 2012. Although Idaho charges several fees, no statutory fee is universally applicable to all cases.
Questions About Fines? Get in Touch With an Attorney
Compared to prison, a sentence involving a fine and probation may seem like a walk in the park. However, failure to abide by all the rules or pay fines and restitution can result in severe penalties, including:
- A warrant for nonpayment
- A civil judgment
- Collateral consequences (for example, suspension of a driver's license)
An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you negotiate a lighter sentence and establish a payment plan for court fees and surcharges. Contact a criminal defense attorney in your area to learn more about your options.