Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, September 16, 2019


Page 1


C.A. Panel Rejects View That Defendant Must Be Allowed Ability-to-Pay Hearing

Div. One of Second District Faults Due Process Analysis in Opinion Nine Months Ago by Div. Seven Which Held That  Assessments, Restitution Fines May Not Be Imposed on Indigents


By a MetNews Staff Writer


Div. One of this district’s Court of Appeal has distanced itself from a Jan. 8 opinion by Div. Seven which declared that a judge must determine a criminal defendant’s ability to pay before imposing assessments and a restitution fine.

 Thursday’s opinion, by Justice Helen Bendix, affirms the imposition by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Laura L. Laesecke of a $40 court operations assessment, a $30 court facilities assessment, and a $300 restitution fine on Axel Caceres, who was convicted, following a no-contest plea, of making criminal threats, and sentenced to 16 months in prison.

On appeal, Caceres argued that Laesecke breached his right of due process by subjecting him to monetary obligations without inquiring as to his financial state, in violation of Div. Seven’s pronouncement in People v. Dueñas. In that case, Acting Presiding Justice Laurie Zelon wrote:

“Because the only reason Dueñas cannot pay the fine and fees is her poverty, using the criminal process to collect a fine she cannot pay is unconstitutional. Accordingly, we reverse the order imposing court facilities and court operations assessments, and we remand the case to the trial court with directions to stay the execution of the restitution fine until the People prove that Dueñas has gained an ability to pay.”

Broad Holding

Bendix said “that the due process analysis in Dueñas does not support its broad holding, and the extreme facts of Dueñas are not present on the record before us.”

Velia Dueñas is a homeless woman with two children, suffering from cerebral palsy. She received three traffic citations as a juvenile but lacked funds to pay the fines totaling $1,088; her license was suspended; the fees and assessments in issue before Div. Seven were imposed by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Eric P. Harmon in connection with her fifth charge of driving with a suspended license.

Dueñas announced a broad constitutional rule, one that has the potential to impose a new procedural requirement on our trial courts in every or nearly every criminal proceeding,” Bendix observed. “It did so based on the peculiar facts of that case, facts that several appellate courts have described as ‘extreme.’ ”

She continued:

“Although we do not reach whether Dueñas was correctly decided as to those extreme facts, in our view, the due process analysis in Dueñas does not justify extending its holding beyond those facts.”

Civil Judgment

Bendix went on to say:

“The Dueñas court acknowledged that failure to pay court assessments subjects defendants to civil judgment and collections, but not to further imprisonment….The court nonetheless held that the consequences of ‘[c]riminal justice debt and associated collection practices’—including damage to credit, inability to meet other financial obligations, and restriction of employment opportunities—’in effect transform a funding mechanism for the courts into additional punishment for a criminal conviction for those unable to pay.’ ”

The Div. One jurist commented:

Dueñas equated the civil judgment and consequences thereof faced by defendants who do not pay their court assessments as ‘additional punishment’ to which only indigent defendants are subject….Although civil judgments potentially can have significant negative consequences, not only for indigent individuals but also for any civil defendant, Dueñas cites no authority for the proposition that those consequences constitute ‘punishment’ rising to the level of a due process violation.”

Equal Access

In Dueñas, Zelon cited Government Code §68630, which declares:

“(a) That our legal system cannot provide ‘equal justice under law’ unless all persons have access to the courts without regard to their economic means. California law and court procedures should ensure that court fees are not a barrier to court access for those with insufficient economic means to pay those fees.

“(b) That fiscal responsibility should be tempered with concern for litigants’ rights to access the justice system. The procedure for allowing the poor to use court services without paying ordinary fees must be one that applies rules fairly to similarly situated persons, is accessible to those with limited knowledge of court processes, and does not delay access to court services.”

Bendix disputed the proposition that fees imposed after a case is adjudicated can deny equal access to the courts.

Legitimate Legislative Purpose

She went on to say:

“[W]e disagree with Dueñas that imposing fees or fines on defendants who cannot pay ‘is neither procedurally fair nor reasonably related to any proper legislative goal.’…Raising funds for victim restitution and court operations and facilities unquestionably are proper legislative goals, and there is no indication that the postconviction assessment and fines statutes do not serve those goals.”

Bendix said that in any event, the circumstances in Caceres’s case are unlike those in the Div. Seven case, pointing out:

“Caceres’s offense, criminal threats, on its face is not a crime either ‘driven by’ poverty or likely to ‘contribut[e] to’ that poverty such that an offender is trapped in a ‘cycle of repeated violations and escalating debt….A person may avoid making criminal threats regardless of his or her financial circumstances, and the imposition of $370 in fees and fines will not impede Caceres’s ability to avoid making criminal threats in the future.

“…[T]o the extent Caceres cannot pay the imposed costs and is subject to a civil judgment, we are not persuaded that such a consequence violates due process.”

Laesecke also did not err in issuing a domestic violence restraining order in favor of the person Caceres threatened—the mother of his daughter, Bendix declared.

The case is People v. Caceres, B292031.


Copyright 2019, Metropolitan News Company