Sentences for misdemeanors and felonies often include a fine, in addition to jail time and restitution. Sometimes the sentencing judge has no discretion as to whether to impose a fine, or the amount; but often, the judge has some leeway. Factors that influence the size of a fine include the seriousness of the crime, the defendant’s criminal record, and the length of any incarceration. In addition to fines, defendants sometimes must pay court costs and fees. For more information on how judges calculate fines, see What Are Criminal Fines?.
The Consequences of Not Paying a Court-ordered Fine
When the sentencing judge calculates the total debt owed by the defendant, the defendant must immediately pay the full amount or pay a fee to set up a payment plan with the court. But sometimes defendants fail to pay, or pay late. Courts charge defendants who fail to meet the payment plan—they must pay interest and additional fees. (See below for a discussion of when defendants might face jail or prison for failing to pay fines.)
In addition to imposing extra fees and interest, the court can:
- Send the debt to a collection program. When defendants lose contact with the court or miss payments, courts refer the debt to a collection program. Collection programs use a variety of tools, starting with letters and phone calls, to motivate defendants to pay their debts. One of the first sanctions used by collection programs is to add additional fees to the debt.
- Suspend drivers’ licenses and vehicle registration. The next step for a collection program is to notify the state’s driver’s licensing agency to suspend the defendant’s license and vehicle registration. Some states also restrict a defendant’s voting rights for unpaid court-ordered debt.
- Seize the defendant’s personal property such as bank accounts, wages, and tax returns. If defendants remain delinquent, collection programs might garnish their wages or levy their bank accounts and tax refunds to force them to pay the debt.
- Place a lien on real property (such as a house). As a last resort, collection programs might try to force defendants to sell their homes to collect the debt.
At any point in the process, defendants can stop the collection sanctions by contacting the court or the collection program to make a full payment or reestablish payments.
It is very difficult for defendants to get rid of court-ordered debt. The fines and restitution ordered in a criminal sentence cannot be discharged in any type of bankruptcy case.
What If I Cannot Afford to Pay My Criminal Fines?
We have been discussing how judges decide on the size of the fine and how courts attempt to collect it. If their collection strategies fail, can judges sentence defendants to jail or prison for failing to pay a fine?
The key United States Supreme Court ruling dealing with unpaid fines, Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), says that only defendants who have money and refuse to pay can be sentenced to jail for violating the court’s order to pay the fine. Judges typically decide whether a defendant is unable, or simply unwilling, to pay a fine. The issue comes up at a probation revocation hearing (the defendant has violated a term of probation—paying the fine—and has been hauled into court to answer for that). Factors the court considers to determine the defendant’s present ability to pay the fine include the defendant’s:
- current income
- bank account balance
- property ownership
- living expenses
- number of dependents
- amount of the fine, and
- payment history on the fine.
Defendants who can pay some portion of their debts and arrange for ongoing payments can probably avoid jail—judges would rather see the money paid than see the defendants in jail, not earning money.
Trapped in a Cycle of Poverty
An increasing number of experts agree that fines and other criminal justice debt are trapping people who are unable to pay in a cycle of poverty. Here is an example of how a molehill of a fine can turn into a mountain of debt.
Talk to a Lawyer
If you have been court-ordered to pay a criminal fine and fees, and you think that your economic circumstances make it impossible for you to pay the fine and fees, consult with an attorney. Only an experienced criminal defense attorney can tell you whether the fine is lawful and what you’ll need to prove to the judge to get a reduction or an alternate plan.