Budgets, Court Costs and Hassles

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nickel-n-dime1The most common legal issue the citizens of North Carolina confront is a traffic ticket.  Every month I help dozens of folks through this brush with the law, doing my best to minimize the financial and emotional impact.  Because I handle so many of these tickets, I can reliably predict what the fines and costs will be associated with most cases.  I collect that amount from my clients and pay off their case once I have resolved it.  Recent legislative and administrative developments in North Carolina have thrown a monkey wrench into this process for me, my clients, and countless others across our state.

As has been recently reported, increased costs of court mandated in the State Budget passed on August 7th took effect statewide on September 1st.  The operative language relevant to traffic tickets is:

INCREASE CERTAIN COURT FEES

SECTION 15.20.(a) G.S. 7A‑304(a) reads as rewritten:

“(a)       In every criminal case … the following costs shall be assessed and collected,…

(2a)      For the upgrade, maintenance, and operation of the judicial and county courthouse phone systems, the sum of one dollar ($1.00), three dollars ($3.00), to be credited to the Court Information Technology Fund.

(3b) For the services, staffing, and operations of the Criminal Justice Education and Standards Commission and the Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission, the sum of two dollars ($2.00) to be remitted to the Department of Justice. One dollar and thirty cents ($1.30) of this sum shall be used exclusively for the Criminal Justice Education and Standards Commission, and seventy cents (70¢) shall be used exclusively for the Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission.

(4a) For support of the General Court of Justice, the sum of five dollars ($5.00) for all offenses arising under Chapter 20 of the General Statutes, to be remitted to the State Treasurer.

SECTION 15.20.(c) G.S. 7A‑304 is amended by adding a new subsection to read:

(f) The court may allow a defendant owing costs under this section to either make payment in full when costs are assessed or make payment on an installment plan arranged with the court. Defendants making use of an installment plan shall pay a onetime setup fee of twenty dollars ($20.00) to cover the additional costs to the court of receiving and disbursing installment payments. Fees collected under this section shall be remitted to the State Treasurer for support of the General Court of Justice.

In lay terms, these provisions raise the cost of a traffic ticket $9.  In and of itself, this is not exactly a hardship.  The problem for attorneys and their clients is that we do not always read such legislation the same way as the AOC (Administrative Office of the Courts — the bureaucrats in Raleigh who oversee the state court system).  It is therefore prudent to wait to collect our estimated court costs from our clients until the usual AOC memo comes down spelling out the changes for the clerks of court.

I began asking our local clerks about the changes two or three weeks before they took effect.  The actual memo was not distributed until September 1st ( the day the changes took effect).  In the meantime, I had advised many of my clients to pay only my fee, and that I would resolve their case and tell them how much to send to the court directly.  Previously, this would not have been a problem, as attorneys routinely take advantage of a little publicized grace period of 20 days following the judgment in which moneys were to be paid.

Now, however, AOC has determined that the payment plan in (f) above is not simply referring to the common practice of a judge ordering “time to pay” (often 30, 60 and even 90 days) at the request of a defendant.  AOC has determined that a $20 fee must be assessed any time the money due is not paid the day of judgment.  This is significant. To be clear, money owed on a judgment has always been “due” the day of the judgment, but we have enjoyed a grace period of 20 days before any adverse action is taken.  This grace period allowed attorneys to handle their accounting in the days that followed the resolution of large volumes of traffic tickets.  Moreover, since most tickets on “Traffic Court”, “Administrative” or “Disposition” court days (dockets that routinely contain 600 to 1000 or more files) are handled by attorneys, the grace period allowed the already overworked clerks of court to have a few days to complete the documentation in all of the judgments handled that day.   Without a grace period, hundreds of cases will have to be pled, judgments entered (by hand), and bills paid, all by 5 o’clock, or clients will be assessed an additional $20, which will often go unpaid.

It also means a personal pain in the behind for me and my clients since I have to postpone all of my traffic cases to go back to my clients and redirect them to forward the new court costs to me.  I hate this because I’m sensitive to the idea that the stress of a traffic ticket is significantly reduced by its prompt resolution.  The longer I have to drag it out, the more stress it puts on my clients.

Stressed out clients.  Overworked clerks.  Rushed attorney accounting.  And all because the State spent all summer coming up with new ways to nickle and dime us.

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