Should You Pay Jail Fees for Time Spent There if You’re Not Guilty?

January 5th, 2018 by Attorney Dan Carman

Lexington Juvenile Criminal Defense Attorney

Some Kentucky criminal defendants are getting a surprise after having their charges dropped or being found not guilty. They’re being billed for fees incurred while they awaited a trial, which could be thousands of dollars. They didn’t ask to be in jail, they wanted to get out, but often due to bail so high they couldn’t pay it, jail is where they lived, and the county jails want to be reimbursed.

David Jones was released from the Clark County jail in 2015 after all the criminal charges against him were dismissed, according to WDRB. He later received a bill for $4,000 to cover the cost of his 14-month stay while he waited for his case to go to trial. A “booking fee” and daily charges stuck with him even though the criminal charges did not.

A state law enacted in 2000 allows jails to take money from inmates when they arrive or seize funds they receive while incarcerated for an initial booking fee and daily pay-to-stay charge of up to $50 a day. Jails can retain that money and bill inmates for the rest, whether or not they are found guilty.

For years, attorneys representing criminal defendants have argued that jailers are violating due process and other constitutional rights by taking money from inmates before a conviction. Those who drafted the law told WDRB this isn’t how the law was supposed to work.

Former Kentucky Senate President David Williams, a Republican who helped write the booking-fee bill, stated an amendment was added requiring the “sentencing court,” or the judge deciding the sentence of a guilty defendant, to decide how much the person owed in jail fees.

The history of the law shows that after it was introduced in the Senate budget committee, critics stated those who are unable to pay and those who are not found guilty should not be forced to pay the fees. In response the bill was amended to “require the sentencing court, rather than allow the county, to order reimbursement” to jails.

“Jails aren’t an executive branch agency,” Williams, who is now a Kentucky circuit court judge, was quoted as saying. “There is a constitutional issue for charging (jail fees to) someone who is innocent.” Whatever Williams may have thought when the law was created, over the years Kentucky courts have upheld the jail-fee law and how jailers are using it.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in 2015 that how county jails charged fees to inmates, even those found not guilty, complied with the law. The state Supreme Court later declined to look at the issue.

Legal developments concerning a similar Colorado law may give hope to innocent criminal defendants forced to pay for their time in jail. A U.S. Supreme Court opinion in April ruled the law was invalid because it didn’t automatically return fees paid by inmates if they weren’t convicted. The Supreme Court ruled that a person is presumed innocent until found guilty and taking their funds violates the 14th amendment’s protections against being deprived of property without due process.

A class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Jones and other inmates trying to have the Kentucky law ruled unconstitutional, arguing that this U.S. Supreme Court ruling supersedes any prior state court decision.

If successful, the case would impact how jails charge inmates in the future and could result in thousands of former inmates seeking reimbursement for money taken illegally in the past, which could be a major liability for county jails. Inmates in Kentucky have paid millions of dollars in booking fees and daily charges since the law went into effect (though many of them pled guilty or were found guilty of a crime).

If you’re under investigation or have been accused of a crime and have questions about how the law might apply to your situation, discuss it with one of the attorneys at the Lexington, Kentucky, based Carman Law Firm. As criminal defense attorneys with years of experience, we offer thorough, experienced representation. Call today at (859) 838-1415 or fill out this online contact form to find out how we can help you.