14th Court of Appeals holds $25 finance charge on criminal fines is facially unconstitutional

Devlon Johnson v State of Texas, 14-18-00273-CR (Tex. App. – Houston [14th Dist.], February 5, 2019, no pet. h.)

In this criminal case, the 14th Court of Appeals held facially unconstitutional a provision of the Texas Local Government Code regarding the amount of court fees that a criminal defendant can be required to pay upon conviction. This applies to all levels of criminal fines, from municipal court up to felony charges in district court. All other fees were upheld as constitutional.

Johnson asserts he pleaded guilty to a criminal charge for possession of cocaine in an amount less than 1 gram. At sentencing, he was ordered to pay an itemized listing of court costs. The costs assessed were a Sheriff’s fee, Capias Warrant fee, District Clerk fee, Jury Service Fund fee, Basic Criminal Legal Services fee, Administrative Transaction fee, and a $25 Time Payment fee for paying the judgment after 30 days. According to the opinion, Johnson challenged the facial constitutionality of the court cost charges and therefore appealed the sentence.

The State asserted the challenge to the constitutionality of the court costs was not presented to the trial court. However, the opinion did not address the consideration by the trial court, as it was a facial challenge.  The panel went through the constitutional standards applicable to criminal court fees.  For a facial-challenge analysis regarding court costs, courts will consider only applications the statute actually authorizes or prohibits, not how or where the collected fees might actually be spent. Two types of court-cost statutes pass constitutional muster: (1) statutes under which a court recoups expenditures necessary or incidental to criminal prosecutions; and (2) statutes providing for an allocation of the costs to be expended for any legitimate criminal justice purpose. The court analyzed each fee and determined all but the $25 Time Payment fee was constitutional. The Time Payment fee is a fee of $25 if the person pays “any part of a fine, court costs, or restitution on or after the 31st day after the date on which a judgment is entered assessing the fine, court costs, or restitution.” Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code § 133.103(a). The court viewed this as is simply a late fee assessed when a person convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor and takes longer than 30 days to pay a fine.  The court held that 90% of the fee is facially unconstitutional because it requires the funds be deposited into a general fund without limitation or restriction.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel consists of Justices Wise, Jewell, and Poissant. Opinion by Justice Jewell. The attorney listed for Johnson is Justin Bradford Smith. The attorneys listed for the state are Stacey M. Soule, Bob D. Odom, and Henry L. Garza.

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