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Court: Fining California's Poor Is Unconstitutional

By William Vogeler, Esq. on January 10, 2019 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A California appeals court ruled that court fines against poor defendants are unconstitutional.

In People v. Duenas, the Second District Court of Appeals reversed a $220 fee imposed on a woman for misdemeanor driving offenses. Velia Duenas was homeless and disabled, and didn't have the money.

She served over 50 days in jail because she could not afford the fine. The appeals court said that was unjust.

Suspended License Case

Duenas was a teenager when she was first cited. Her license was suspended, but she continued to drive to jobs and to take her children to school.

She received three additional misdemeanor convictions for driving on a suspended license. When she didn't pay the fine, she was ordered to serve time.

On appeal, the Second District said the trial court should have assessed whether she had the ability to pay. Under the circumstances, the appeals court said, the fine served no rational purpose.

"Poor people must face collection efforts solely because of their financial status, an unfair and unnecessary burden that does not accomplish the goal of collecting money," Justice Laurie Zelon wrote for the court.

Wealthy v. Indigent

Zelon said that the collection laws favor the wealthy person by offering "an ultimate outcome that the indigent one will never be able to obtain." The statutory scheme also perpetuates "a cycle of incarceration and impoverishment," she wrote.

Government attorneys argued that it was a problem for the legislature, and the appeals court responded. The panel invited lawmakers to deal with it.

Kathryn Eidman, an attorney with Public Counsel, told Courthouse News that the decision is "a beacon of hope for thousands of vulnerable Californians."

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