What “Court Costs” Can a Judge Assess If I Am Convicted of a Crime?

December 4th, 2019 by Tad Nelson in Criminal Defense

You may not realize this, but the penalties for a criminal conviction in Texas are often not limited to jail time or probation. In many cases, the judge can assess “court costs” against a guilty defendant. These costs are supposed to help the state recoup some of the costs of its successful prosecution. But in recent years, there have been a number of legal challenges raised to the validity of these costs, particularly when the money is used for purposes only tangentially related to the criminal justice system.

Court of Criminal Appeals Rejects Latest Constitutional Challenge to Court Costs

The most recent of these challenges, Allen v. State, involved a specific type of court cost. Under Section 102.011 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, a trial judge may order a defendant to reimburse local law enforcement for the cost of summoning witnesses to appear at their trial. This includes a $5 per-witness summoning cost and 29 cents for each mile the officer must travel to deliver the summons.

In this particular case, Harris County prosecutors charged the defendant with aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. After a jury found him guilty of this charge, the trial judge imposed $200 in summoning and mileage costs under Section 102.011. The defendant appealed this costs order, arguing it violated the Texas Constitution.

Essentially, the defendant argued that the court costs amounted to a “tax,” and under the constitution, only the executive branch could collect taxes. To allow the judiciary to collect taxes would, therefore, violate the “separation of powers” required by the constitution.

In prior cases, the Court of Criminal Appeals has said the use of court costs to reimburse the state for trial expenses is not unconstitutional. However, such costs must be “necessary” and “incidental” to the actual trial. For example, in a 2017 decision, Salinas v. State, the Court partially invalidated the assessment of court costs because some of the money collected from the defendant was earmarked for uses that were “not sufficiently related to the criminal justice system.”

But in the Allen case, the Court of Criminal Appeals said the Salinas ruling did not apply to costs that are imposed strictly “to recoup expenses incurred during a defendant’s prosecution,” as opposed to offsetting “future criminal justice costs.” And there was nothing in the Court’s previous decisions that require such costs “must direct collected funds toward legitimate criminal justice purposes in order to avoid a separation of powers violation.”

Speak with a Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

Court costs may seem like a minor matter. But every year, thousands of Texas residents are jailed due to their inability to pay fines and court costs, even for low-level crimes. That is why you need to be vigilant in asserting your rights, even when charged with a misdemeanor offense.

An experienced Houston criminal defense attorney can help. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you have been charged with a crime and need immediate assistance. Call 281-280-0100.


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