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Ending the Unjust Punishment of Court Fees

Velia Duenas (Right) stands with Theresa Zhen, then-legal fellow at A New Way of Life Reentry Project, before speaking to the California state legislature regarding the impact of license suspension on herself and her family.

BREAKING (January 8, 2019) — The California Second District Court of Appeals issued a groundbreaking opinion today, ruling that imposing court fees on indigent defendants who lack the ability to pay is unjust and violates the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution and California Constitution.

Criminalizing the Poor

No person should be punished on the basis of her poverty. Yet courts in California frequently assess “court fees” on defendants without taking into account their inability to pay—effectively assessing additional punishment through exposure to escalating court debt and other deprivations of liberty, such as driver’s license suspension and potential inability to access expungement.

People v. Dueñas is a criminal appeal brought on behalf a low-income defendant, Velia Dueñas, who was charged $220 in court fees without consideration of her inability to pay.  This constitutional challenge seeks to enforce bedrock federal and state constitutional principles prohibiting punishment on the basis of poverty in the context of court fees, which are often referred to as court “user” fees, that California courts routinely assess on top of statutory fines.  Brought as a criminal appeal in California state court, this case seeks to ensure that Ms. Dueñas is not punished solely on the basis of her poverty, and if successful, the case will stand as a landmark decision affirming the foundational constitutional protections for all indigent defendants and will substantially advance the fight against the criminalization of poverty.

Case Background

Ms. Dueñas is a mother of two, who has a disability and is homeless.  Because of citations that she received as a teenager, her driver’s license was suspended, creating a legal barrier to performing vital tasks, like getting and keeping a job and driving her children to doctor visits or school.  As a result of the suspension, Ms. Dueñas suffered three additional misdemeanor convictions for driving on a suspended license.  Each time she could not afford to pay the fines, so she had no choice but to serve jail time in lieu of payment, in total over fifty days in jail because she was too poor to pay the fines.

Even after serving out her fine in jail, Ms. Dueñas remains liable for court fees associated with each of her misdemeanor convictions.  California courts routinely assess such court fees, including a court operations fee and court facilities fee, on top of the penalties associated with a conviction for a crime.  These fees serve no punitive or rehabilitative purpose, and the State has acknowledged that it cannot collect even a fraction of them, since many defendants, like Ms. Dueñas, simply cannot afford to pay. Indeed, these fees undermine the integrity of the judiciary itself.

For low-income defendants like Ms. Dueñas, the imposition of these court fees constitutes an additional punishment, exposing poor defendants, but not their wealthy counterparts, to severe and life-altering consequences, including:

  • Insurmountable court debt and harsh collection methods
  • Potential barred access to expungement
  • Driver’s license suspension, prior to SB 185

This case brings federal and state constitutional claims challenging the court’s imposition of $220 in court fees on Ms. Dueñas without considering her inability to pay as impermissible punishment on the basis of poverty. The practice is also impermissible discrimination against indigent defendants under California’s state constitution, which deems wealth to be a suspect classification.

Key Legal Documents

Appellant’s Opening Brief

Respondent’s Brief

Appellant’s Reply Brief

Amicus Briefs — A coalition of groups have come together in a resounding chorus of support for the case and to affirm the startling deprivations of basic liberty imposed by court debt on individuals involved in the criminal justice system, as well as their families, communities, and the state.

People v Kopp (California Supreme Court)

Economic Justice Organizations Amicus Brief

Poverty Law Scholars Amicus Brief

Public Defender and Civil Rights Amicus Brief

Bar Associations Amicus Brief

Professor Beth Colgan Amicus Brief


People v Dueñas (Court of Appeal)

LACBA, SFBA, BHBA Amicus Brief

EBCLC et al. Amicus Brief

Poverty Law Scholars & ACLU Amicus Brief