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New law places limits on collecting court costs from poor people

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 19. 2018 9:14AM

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has ruled that the same rules apply for collection of past due public-defender bills as they do for court fines levied by a judge.

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court said the Office of Cost Containment, which collects bills for public defenders who represent poor people in criminal cases, must follow the procedures under last year’s “debtors’ prison” law.

The law enacts several safeguards before anyone can be jailed for not paying court fines or completing community service. They include a right to a lawyer, a clear explanation of the issues, a warning that a defendant faces a jail sentence and a finding by a judge that a defendant willfully decided not to pay.

“This is a historic decision that protects the poor from the State’s effort to collect public defender debts,” said University of New Hampshire law professor Albert “Buzz” Scherr, who filed a friend of the court brief in the case along with the American Civil Liberties Union-New Hampshire and New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

Coercive debt collection can force poor people to forgo basic necessities to avoid arrest and jail, he said.

“Debtors’ prisons waste taxpayer money and resources by jailing people who may never be able to pay their debts,” Scherr said.

A telephone message and email to Administrative Services Commissioner Charles Arlinghaus, who oversees the Office of Cost Containment, were not immediately returned.

The Supreme Court remanded the case of John T. Brawley, who filed his appeal without a lawyer but was supported by the American Civil Liberties-New Hampshire.

A jury found Brawley innocent of two crimes, but the Office of Cost Containment convinced a judge to order repayment and after failing to appear in court, Brawley was briefly jailed when he didn’t pay his bill.

He forfeited his $50 bail toward his $453 bill.

The Office of Cost Containment asked the judge to jail him for three days, but the judge refused, ruling that the innocent verdict extinguished the case and the judge had no jurisdiction. The Supreme Court rejected that reasoning, but agreed with the ACLU that the Office of Cost Containment needs to follow the new law.

Justice Patrick Donovan wrote the opinion.

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