The Legal Rights Center has employees and contributors from a variety of different backgrounds, and we invite all our staff and volunteers to contribute to conversations on the topics of racial justice, the criminal justice system, and many more. Omi Strait, summer communications assistant for the LRC, and M. Graciela Gonzalez, volunteer attorney, contributed to this post.
The Justice System in Minnesota is anything but “just” when it comes to punishing people for the smallest of offenses codified in an overbroad Criminal Code and city ordinances. For example, walking your dog on a leash, but without the dog tag required by your city, may result in a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. Indeed, many city codes include a provision stating that it is a misdemeanor offense to violate any provision of the city’s Code of Ordinances.
Of course, the piling of monetary obligations on the working poor is not restricted to a fine and surcharges. There are also Probation fees, the cost of evaluations, programming required by Probation, restitution, etc.
Most low-level offenses settle through plea bargaining and require a defendant to pay a fine. Often, judges allow a defendant to pay the fine with free work for the county, in the form of Sentence to Service, or some other form of community service, or with jail credit for time served; or the fine or part of it can be stayed with conditions. However, state law imposes a mandatory surcharge to every fine ($75 in Hennepin County), and the judges cannot stay, waive or allow an alternative form of payment for the surcharge. More onerous for our clients, nonpayment of a fine or its surcharge often results in suspension of their driving privileges. The result is no driver's license ('DL'), no job, as most people need to drive to their jobs. The state has other options to collect an unpaid fine (intercept tax refunds, pursue a civil action, etc.) The state does not need to deprive someone of his or her driving license to collect an unpaid fine. The following piece highlights the current efforts to redress some of these injustices.
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