A state appeals court said Tuesday it is unconstitutional to use the criminal justice system to try to collect fees, fines, or restitution from defendants who are unable to pay.
"The criminal justice system punishes indigent defendants in a way that it does not punish wealthy defendants," the court said in an opinion authored by Justice Laurie D. Zelon, and suggested the California Legislature consider changing a section of the Penal Code that requires certain payments.
The decision stemmed from the case of a homeless mother in Los Angeles, Velia Duenas, who could not afford to pay a cascading series of fines and penalties over many years.
"Because the only reason Duenas cannot pay the fine and fee is her poverty, using the criminal process to collect a fine she cannot pay is unconstitutional," the court said.
"We're really thrilled with the opinion," said Public Counsel attorney Kathryn Eidmann, who argued the appeal. "It will do a lot of good for Ms. Duenas and a lot of defendants like her across the state."
Eidmann said it was the first case she was aware of in which a court has found the imposition of fees without consideration of a defendant's ability to pay was fundamentally unfair.
"Not only does this establish a precedent for every indigent defendant facing these kind of fees, but it could also help to establish a similar precedent for other fees," Edimann told NBC4.