“It always makes me uncomfortable when I tell someone what their fine is,” says Bruce Boni, Magisterial District Judge in McKees Rocks, Pa.
“They might smile and say, ‘Thank you, your honor. I can pay that today,’ and then I say, ‘Well hold on, you’re gonna have court costs.’”
An investigation by PublicSource found that those “court costs” can saddle a defendant with debt far more than the original fine. In Pennsylvania, many traffic fines are as little as $25, but itemized costs in documents from a sample case added up to well over $150.
It’s a practice used by jurisdictions across the country. In Pennsylvania, such “court costs,” also known as fees or surcharges on traffic and non-traffic offenses, fund a number of government functions.
Some are court-related, like the judiciary’s automated case management system. Many other fees are collected to fund statewide programs, like emergency medical services and youth diversionary programs.
While fines are punishment for an offense, fees are not meant to be punitive. Yet they often exceed the fine itself, in many cases costing several times more.
“It’s counterintuitive,” Boni said. “You don’t pay at a restaurant more on the tip and the taxes than the cost of the food.”
Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas judges have the authority to waive court fines and costs.
But at the Magisterial District Court level, which handles low-level cases, the rules are less clear.
In 2018, Pennsylvania courts brought in $444 million in fines and fees. Some court costs increase yearly based on the Consumer Price Index, a cost of living measure.
Other surcharges are set by state statute and are not raised unless lawmakers amend the statute.
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne told PublicSource that lawmakers put these charges in place for two reasons: the belief that wrongdoers should pay for the cost of the court and because they want to generate revenue without raising taxes.
Here are two graphic examples of how “court costs” effectively turn a fine into an onerous financial burden for defendants already at the lowest end of the income scale.
- A judge fined a defendant $25 for a traffic offense. Fines, fees, costs and surcharges added up to $125.50. Total amount billed: $150.50
- A defendant was assessed a $300 fine for disorderly conduct. Additional fees, costs and surcharges amounted to $165. Then the defendant was also ordered to pay $160.70 as a “server fee” for the times a constable tried to deliver a warrant and was unsuccessful. Total bill: $625.70
According to Pittsburgh Magisterial District Judge Richard King, lawmakers are leaning on court costs instead of taxes.
“Legislators haven’t had the wherewithal to actually raise taxes on everybody,” he said. “It’s the adage: do you want to get a nickel from everyone, or do you want to get a quarter off of certain people?”
State Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, Democratic chair of the House Finance Committee, said the state Legislature relies on “back-door” funding from fees instead of comprehensively funding the state budget with taxes.
“When we talk about cutting things in the budget, you will see the fees then start getting higher,” he said. “It’s a legislative way to deal with stuff and not deal with stuff.”
This is a condensed and slightly edited version of part two of a multipart series by Juliette Rihl, a reporter for PublicSource, and a Justice Reporting Fellow for the 2019 John Jay/Arnold Ventures Fellowship on “Cash Register Justice.” Read the complete version and the series here.