Payment of Fines and Fees During the COVID-19 Outbreak
As part of a sentence following a criminal conviction, a court may require the defendant to pay fines and court fees. In some cases, a defendant also may need to pay restitution to a victim who has suffered financial losses due to the crime. A defendant who receives probation as part of their sentence may be accountable for paying certain costs related to probation. These fines and fees can add up quickly, complicating the financial situation of someone who may already be struggling with debt during the COVID-19 outbreak.
While many courts have closed, this does not mean that the payment of fines and fees has been waived. A judge can issue a bench warrant or otherwise compel a defendant to appear in court if they fail to pay these costs, together with any associated interest and late fees. Unless they can present a convincing reason for failing to pay, a defendant can suffer serious adverse consequences, such as a wage garnishment, the loss of a driver’s license, and even the revocation of probation. However, recognizing the challenges posed by the coronavirus emergency, some courts are offering temporary relief to people who owe fines and fees.
Coronavirus Relief for Court Debt
Courts in some states, counties, cities, and judicial districts have extended payment deadlines for fines and fees. These include courts in certain areas of California, Illinois, Florida, and Georgia, among other states. Many courts also have suspended the accumulation of interest and late fees related to these debts. Other areas have imposed a moratorium on collections actions and other coercive measures. For example, the city of Chicago has stopped referring court debt to collection agencies. This means that defendants will not face wage garnishments, bank account levies, or the seizure of their tax refunds. (Coronavirus stimulus checks are categorically protected from collections efforts to satisfy court debt, although they are not protected from certain other types of collections actions.)
The loss of a driver’s license can be devastating for someone who needs to drive for work-related purposes. A few states, such as Oregon and North Carolina, have stopped the practice of revoking a driver’s license when they fail to pay fines and fees, or fail to appear in court. This relief can help a defendant keep their job or find new employment if they have lost their job, which in turn can help the defendant ultimately pay the court debt.
You should check the website of a court to which you owe debt to find out whether any relief may be available. Even if the court does not offer any of these forms of relief, you may be able to negotiate a payment plan on an individual basis. The court clerk’s office may be willing to listen to your circumstances and work out a feasible arrangement for you.
Traffic Court Closures and Payment of Traffic Tickets
Due to concerns about spreading the coronavirus, courts have largely shut down except for essential matters and emergencies. As a result, traffic courts have closed in nearly all areas of the U.S. This does not mean that you no longer need to pay a traffic ticket, though. Unless you want to contest the ticket, you should submit payment online or by mail. You also may be able to complete a traffic school course online if you are using this option to mitigate your penalties.
On the other hand, if you want to contest your ticket or ask for reduced penalties, you may face a long wait in resolving the matter. Fighting a ticket usually requires at least one appearance in court. (Some serious violations also may require a court appearance, regardless of whether the driver is contesting the ticket.) Since most traffic courts have postponed hearings indefinitely, you will need to check the website of the court to find out when you can expect the court to reopen. Once the court reopens, it will reschedule the date for your hearing.