July 14, 2017: DAILY JOURNAL - Governor signs law ending fees for exonerated defendants
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Gov. Jerry Brown this week signed into law a bill that eliminates the requirement for exonerated defendants to pay fees for court-appointed counsel.
Under the new law, if defendants who have court-appointed counsel are found not guilty, they will not be required to pay any fees for their legal assistance.
If defendants are found guilty of a felony or misdemeanor, the court is authorized to order them to pay legal assistance fees. However, the court is now also authorized to hold a hearing to determine whether the defendant must pay all or only a portion of those fees.
Prior to the bill’s signing, indigent defendants could be ordered to reimburse the county for some or all of the costs of legal aid, whether they were convicted or not. Now, such fees can only be imposed upon indigent defendants who ultimately are convicted.
“We were in a system where if you’re innocent you pay, but if you’re guilty you don’t,” explained Larry Doyle, legislative representative for the Conference of California Bar Associations, which sponsored the bill. “If you were guilty, there was a presumption you were unable to pay and they waived fees for you, so you were only forced to pay if you were found not guilty. When we brought that logic to the Legislature, they agreed overwhelmingly.”
The bill, SB 355, authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, had no registered opposition and received zero “no” votes as it moved though the Senate and Assembly. Nor did anyone raise the issue about potential revenue loss from the shift, Doyle said. “It was something that was so obvious nobody really wanted to make that argument,” he said.
“Our legal culture is such that defendants are usually not ordered to reimburse the county for legal services per 987.8 PC and when they are imposed, they are minimal amounts,” Jose Octavio Guillen, Sonoma County court executive officer, said in an email. “For those minimal amounts, the county has a low recovery/collections rate. So this is a feel-good bill, but [with] little impact on the system as a whole.”
Mitchell said that getting the bill passed was one of the rare times she could call the process “a breeze.”
“Ending court fees for the innocent — that would be hard to oppose, politically. ... I know the courts and law enforcement and DAs have plenty of issues to disagree with me on, but the public perception of fairness, to require people who are innocent to pay fees — that would be a tough row to hoe.”
The California District Attorneys Association took no position on the bill, and did not comment. The Judicial Council also did not comment.
The California State Association of Counties said it had a “watch” on the bill but took no position.
“Our attorneys didn’t mind the notion if you were accused of an offense and proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, you should help pay for cost of the attorney defending you during that process,” said Nick Stewart-Oaten, a Los Angeles County deputy public defender who contributed to the drafting of the bill. “But you had people who were presumed innocent forced to pay for attorneys they didn’t want, for an accusation that fell apart.”
The amounts defendants were paying varied by county and by offense, Stewart-Oaten said, but fees above $1,000 were not uncommon. “And when you’re talking about an indigent client, $1,000 is just as unpayable as $100,000.”
The Conference of California Bar Associations estimated that 26,560 people statewide who had not been convicted of any crime were ordered to pay a fee each year, said Estevan Ginsburg, a Senate fellow in Mitchell’s office.
Mitchell said she is seeing far more pushback in the remaining parts of her seven-bill “equity and justice” package, co-authored with Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens.
The package includes bills that would end juvenile justice fees and drug sentence enhancements, seal arrest records for those not convicted, end juvenile life without parole, require legal counsel for juveniles who waive Miranda rights, and exclude children 11 and younger from juvenile court jurisdiction.