The Missouri Supreme Court says state courts aren’t in the jail-fee collecting business.
The court ruled unanimously on March 19 that, while counties can charge criminal defendants for the costs of their incarceration, circuit courts have no statutory authority to impose such “board bills” as courts costs.
As a result, that means defendants can’t be brought back into court monthly to review their payments for that debt, nor can the court put them back in jail for failure to pay it.
Matthew Mueller of the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office, who argued on behalf of two defendants who owed thousands of dollars in board bills, said the ruling will affect courts across the state, where likely hundreds of defendants face regular hearings and the threat of jail regarding their debts.
“There’s definitely going to be some fall-out from this,” Mueller said. “I’m curious to see what happens. There’s going to be some serious readjustment that needs to take place in how courts go about assessing and collecting court costs.”
Josh Jones of Collins & Jones in Osceola, who served until recently as the St. Clair County prosecuting attorney and argued one of the cases resolved in the March 19 opinion, said those systemic effects will extend to county budgets as well. Without an expedient way to collect those debts from former inmates, he said, “the taxpayers are just going to have to eat that out of the sheriffs’ budgets.”
But Lafayette County Prosecuting Attorney Kristen Ellis Hilbrenner, who argued the companion case, said she didn’t think the ruling would change the way she prosecuted cases.
“We were not in the practice of making offers based on county budget concerns to begin with,” she said.
George Richey of St. Clair County and John B. Wright of Lafayette County both served short jail sentences for misdemeanor charges and then were assessed the costs for their incarceration. Wright was assessed a board bill of about $1,350. Richey initially was assessed $3,150, but that grew to about $5,500 after he spent another two months in the county jail for failure to comply with the order to pay the original bill.
Judge Mary R. Russell wrote that, while there are specific statutes that allow some fees to be assessed as court costs against a defendant, jail board bills aren’t among them. St. Clair and Lafayette counties had pointed to a “miscellaneous charges” provision allowing recovery of costs for “services provided by individuals or entities other than the court,” but Russell said that wasn’t specific enough.
By Scott Lauck | Missouri Lawyers Weekly