New Mexico law prohibits judges from waiving many fees which are tacked onto traffic and criminal cases, resulting in millions of dollars being taken from often the poorest New Mexicans. (Photo by Krisanapong Detraphiphat / Getty Images)
Whenever someone gets pulled over for a traffic violation or charged with a low-level crime in New Mexico, extra fees generate millions of dollars for the government each year.
But the state’s judicial branch wants to get rid of them entirely, because they disproportionately impact poor New Mexicans and sometimes cost more to collect than they are worth.
Next year, court officials will present a bill to the Legislature that would eliminate all fees associated with traffic cases, said Jason Clack, director of the Court Operations Division at the Administrative Office of the Courts.
The proposal also calls for those fees to be eliminated from criminal cases, according to a June 1 memorandum written by the AOC Director Arthur Pepin to the state Supreme Court.
“The nature of court fees as a financial cost associated with traffic or misdemeanor adjudications is that they have a disproportionate impact on the poor and are not an efficient or appropriate means to fund government operations,” Pepin wrote.
The fees are imposed on top of the fines required by the state’s criminal laws. The purpose of the fees is not punishment, deterrence or even rehabilitation, Clack said during a hearing on Thursday held by the Legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.
The state’s Motor Vehicle Division has suspended 250,000 licenses not because of any bad driving but because of a missed court hearing or a missed payment, said Monica Ault, state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
New Mexico is one of 13 states that criminalize traffic violations, Ault said.
“I would hope that most of us don’t think it’s reasonable to go to jail on a traffic ticket,” Ault said.
Some people can’t afford other basic needs because of this debt to the court, and some even go so far as to commit more crimes to get the money to pay off that debt, said Kate Bryan, a policy analyst with the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
Along with losing one’s driver’s license, the fees can affect a person’s credit score, limit their job opportunities, or prohibit them from being able to seal or expunge their criminal records, according to Bryan’s presentation to lawmakers.
In 2018, the New Mexico Supreme Court changed court rules to require that judges consider a person’s ability to pay when levying fines, Ault said. They also required judges to first issue a summons when someone fails to pay a fine, rather than immediately issue a bench warrant, which police can use as an arrest warrant, she said.
But the contradiction remains in state law, she said, which prevents courts from waiving most of these fees.
“So even though the court is doing what the court can do, they’re directed by statute to essentially be a revenue center,” Ault said.
The fees, not all of which apply in all cases, generate about $8.2 million for court programs and about $8.4 million for non-court programs, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Instead, the bill will ask lawmakers to consider funding those government functions with money out of the state’s general fund, Clack said.
If the Legislature passes the bill and whoever is governor next year signs it into law, it would allow the courts to shift their resources they currently use to collect the fees to other areas they feel are more appropriate, including ensuring people are showing up to hearings, getting reminders about those hearings, and understanding their conditions of release, he said.
The current fines and fees scheme in New Mexico puts courts in a difficult position of deciding which government programs to fund or not, he said, which should be the responsibility of the legislative branch.
A survey of people with court debt in Alabama found that 83% gave up necessities like rent, food, medical bills, car payments, and child support to pay down their court debt, 50% had been jailed for failure to pay court debt, 38% committed a crime to pay off their court debt, and 20% were turned down for a diversion program like drug court because they could not afford it.
Ault said her organization is conducting a similar study in New Mexico, and its preliminary findings are the same.
“When we fund government or we fund the courts from fines and fees, which is such an unreliable resource, everybody loses,” Ault said. “Our families lose.”
Plus, using fees to fund government programs doesn’t work, because you’re often robbing Peter to pay Paul, said N.M. Sentencing Commission Deputy Director Douglas Carver.
“You’re imposing these fees, but then the courts are spending a lot of time and money to chase down fees that are collected,” Carver said.
For example, Bernalillo County in 2016 spent at least $1.17 to collect every dollar of revenue it raised through fees and fines, meaning that it lost money through this system, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice.
Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) previously carried a bill that would have prohibited the courts from telling the MVD when someone misses a hearing or a payment. That bill did not pass but will return next year, Ault said.
The Sentencing Commission is studying the impact of these fines and fees at the individual level and on the economy as a whole, Carver said. Both of those studies are expected to be complete before the upcoming legislative session in January.
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