OHIO Indigent felony defendants must pay their court costs



Defendants can do community service to pay the costs.
COLUMBUS -- Crime might not pay, but criminal felony defendants should pay court costs even if they are indigent, according to an Ohio Supreme Court decision released today.
"A trial court may assess court costs against an indigent defendant convicted of a felony as part of the sentence and that a clerk of courts may attempt the collection of court costs assessed against an indigent defendant," wrote Justice Maureen O'Connor in the high court's majority decision.
The decision stems from the case involving Terry White, who in 2002 pleaded no contest in Guernsey County Common Pleas Court to possession of less than 5 grams of cocaine.
White was sentenced to serve seven months in prison and pay a fine and court costs. According to court documents, the fine was removed after it was determined that White was indigent, but the court costs remained.
White appealed to the Fifth District Court of Appeals, which upheld the trial court's order for court costs.
During oral arguments White was represented by Assistant Public Defender Stephen Hardwick, who told the justices, "It just isn't cost effective to get blood from a turnip."
Hardwick argued imposing the court costs on indigent offenders could hamper their ability to reform and become productive members of society and that you couldn't get any more indigent than zero income and zero assets.
In the decision released Wednesday, the high court found the charging of court costs wasn't simply a right of the court, but an obligation.
Opinions
"We determine that [Ohio law] does not govern a court's ability to assess costs," Justice O'Connor wrote. "It governs only a clerk's ability to collect assessed costs from nonindigent defendants. Moreover, [Ohio law] does not prohibit a court from assessing costs against an indigent defendant; rather it requires a court to assess costs against all convicted defendants."
The decision also addressed the issue of collecting the fees.
Justice O'Connor wrote there are a number of ways a court can collect the fees, including assessing the costs through the defendant's prison account, attempting collection at a later date when it becomes apparent that the defendant is no longer indigent, and imposing community service upon the defendant as a method to pay off or forgive costs.
Justice Paul Pfeifer said he agreed in part with the majorities' decision, but believed courts should exercise the right to assign community service as a method of payment.
"For indigent defendants or persons convicted of misdemeanors, community service has become an alternate means of collection under [Ohio law]. Unpaid balances are to be paid in sweat."

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