Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Defender seeks to expand court cost rulings for poor defendants

Scott Lauck//January 2, 2020//

Defender seeks to expand court cost rulings for poor defendants

Scott Lauck//January 2, 2020//

Listen to this article

An attorney who won a landmark ruling earlier this year regarding criminal defendants’ jail fees is now trying to “push the envelope” on other court costs that his clients had been told to pay. But a recent spate of court rulings has shed little light on how to win such cases.

In March, the Missouri Supreme Court held in State v. Richey that circuit courts have no statutory authority to impose “board bills” as part of the court costs routinely charged to defendants. Although defendants remain responsible for the cost of their incarceration, counties seeking to recover that money must use a separate process though the Office of State Courts Administrator.

The ruling also left defendants liable for other court costs specifically authorized by statute. But in April, the Court of Appeals Eastern District ruled in State v. Boston that in some cases counties lack that authority as well.

In that case, the county in which a defendant was tried on a change of venue had no authority to impose incarceration costs against him. Instead, the county that received the case had to seek reimbursement from the county that originally charged the defendant.

Matthew Mueller, the Kansas City-based public defender who argued the Boston and Richey cases, has sought since then to expand on those rulings. He argues that, as indigent clients of the public defender system, the defendants shouldn’t have to pay court costs at all.

He also argues that county clerks who improperly tried to assess costs against his clients are liable for hefty monetary judgments under state law. So far, those arguments have failed to stick in two appellate districts.

On Dec. 3, the Eastern District reaffirmed its earlier Boston ruling. Gary L. Thomas had been charged with stealing in Schuyler County, but the case was adjudicated in nearby Scotland County. After serving 119 days in jail, the court assessed a board bill of more than $4,000 and $1,100 in costs. Thomas failed to pay the costs and was arrested later for failing to appear at a hearing.

Mueller filed a motion for the court to retax those costs. Under Richey, Thomas’ board bill was cancelled, but the Scotland County Circuit Court said Thomas remained liable for the other costs and refused to refund about $370 he already had paid. The Eastern District reversed that ruling, holding that Scotland County had to give Thomas back the $370 and instead would have to seek reimbursement from Schuyler County.

The court declined to say, however, that Thomas was completely off the hook. Schuyler County could then seek to impose those costs back onto Thomas.

“Hypothetically, if a change of venue never occurred in Thomas’s case, he would unquestionably be required to pay the court costs of his criminal case (unless it was found that he could not) in which he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor,” Chief Judge Colleen Dolan wrote. Judges James M. Dowd and Robin Ransom concurred.

The court also turned aside Mueller’s argument that Thomas shouldn’t be charged at all because he is indigent. Although Thomas is represented by the public defender, the Scotland County court said Thomas, following his incarceration, had told Judge Thomas Redington that he was employed and had agreed to pay $100 a month toward the costs. During the later hearing on the motion to retax costs, Redington had refused to take additional evidence about Thomas’ ability to pay.

The Eastern District said the issue wasn’t ripe for appellate determination. If Thomas is later found responsible for those costs again, however, the court said he could file a new motion regarding his alleged indigence.

The court also declined Mueller’s attempt to make use of a statute that appears to impose a financial penalty against Scotland County for having tried to charge Thomas for the court costs. Section 550.180 states that “If any clerk shall fail to tax the costs and make out a proper fee bill, or shall willfully neglect to perform any duty required of him . . . he shall be liable to the person injured by such neglect in treble the amount of costs to which the party is entitled in the cause . . .”

The statute appears to require only a motion and two days’ notice to the clerk. The Eastern District, however, said the Scotland County clerk wasn’t a party to the case and couldn’t be ordered to pay any judgment.

“I thought it was pretty clear, but the court disagreed and said due process principles prevent us from entering judgment against the clerk,” Mueller said. He said he might file an independent civil action instead.

“I was trying to push the implications of Boston a little further,” he said. Although that didn’t happen, he added, “They didn’t say I was wrong.”

Schuyler County Prosecutor Lindsay Gravett, who argued the case, didn’t respond to a request for comment left with her office.

Western District rulings

Meanwhile, Mueller has had even more limited success in two recent cases in the Western District Court of Appeals. On Nov. 12, the court issued opinions in two court-cost cases in which Mueller had tried two different approaches to get relief for his clients.

Kevin Barnes had been charged with felony domestic in Lafayette County, but the case was transferred to neighboring Saline County. Mueller, citing Boston, originally filed a motion for Barnes’ $400 in costs to be retaxed against the originating county. He later abandoned that effort and instead filed a mandamus action against Saline County Circuit Clerk Rebecca Uhlich that would order her to send the bill to Lafayette County.

The Western District said mandamus is an extraordinary remedy that can be used only in the absence of an adequate alternative. Judge Thomas Chapman wrote that Mueller had to stick to the motion to retax Barnes’ costs, even if that took more time. Judges Gary D. Witt and Edward R. Ardini concurred.

Yet on the same day, a different panel said that route didn’t work either, though in a case that didn’t involve a county-to-county transfer.

Thomas Savage had been convicted in Clay County for stealing and was assessed $370 in costs at his sentencing, even though he argued that he was indigent. Mueller later sought to retax those costs. But the appeals court said the costs were part of the judgment and that it was too late for Savage to reopen it.

The Supreme Court’s Richey case, Judge Lisa White Hardwick wrote, “did not grant defendants an unfettered right to challenge the court’s determination about which party is liable for court costs at any time.” Chief Judge Karen King Mitchell concurred, as did Judge Chapman.

Mueller said the delay in filing the motion was necessary because he couldn’t file it until the bill had been sent.

The court also noted that the direct appeal of Savage’s criminal case still was pending, however, and that he could raise his court-cost argument there. Thomas’ public defender in the criminal appeal now is seeking to amend the briefs to discuss the issue.

Meanwhile, Mueller has asked that both of the Western District’s court-cost decisions be transferred to the Supreme Court.

The cases are State v. Thomas, ED107938; Barnes v. Uhlrich, WD82622; and State v. Savage, WD82663.

Latest Opinion Digests

See all digests

Top stories

See more news