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Oregon Probation Extended for Inability to Pay Financial Obligations

Oregon Probation Extended for Inability to Pay Financial Obligations

by Mark Wilson

In a July 9, 2014 ruling, the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s extension of probation for failure to pay financial obligations due to poverty. The Court of Appeals concluded that Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660, 103 S.Ct. 2064 (1983) did not control because the failure to pay did not result in the probationer’s incarceration.

Joseph David Bell was convicted of several offenses in Oregon and sentenced to probation; one of his probation conditions was to pay restitution, fines and assessments.

When Bell did not pay his financial obligations, the court extended his probation for 12 months, ordered him to perform 32 hours of community service and assessed a $25 probation violation fee.

Bell appealed, relying exclusively on Bearden to support his argument that the extension of his probation violated the Fourteenth Amendment, because the state failed to “prove that he could have made payments but did not and ... at the least, the court had the obligation independently to ask him if his failure resulted from inability to pay.” Bell did not dispute that he failed to pay, but claimed that he could not pay due to indigence.

The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the probation extension, observing first that Bell did not make any state or federal constitutional arguments beyond the Fourteenth Amendment or offer any authority except Bearden.

The appellate court then explained that “Bearden unequivocally does not apply to situations in which a probationer’s failure to pay fines or restitution results in some sanction less onerous than imprisonment.” As such, Bearden “does not hold that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits imposing nonincarcerative sanctions on a probationer for failing to pay fines or restitution.”

Rather, Bearden holds only that a probationer cannot be imprisoned for failure to make required payments “unless the probationer failed to make bona fide efforts to pay and alternatives to imprisonment are inadequate in a particular situation.”

Given that the state did not seek to incarcerate Bell for his failure to fulfill the financial conditions of his probation, the Court of Appeals rejected his Bearden challenge.

“This case does not present the question of who has the burden of establishing bona fide indigence or its absence in a case where the prosecution does seek imprisonment,” the Court wrote. Nor did the Court’s decision imply “that, even in a situation involving sanctions short of imprisonment, a court is prohibited from inquiring into the causes of a probationer’s failure to make payments and adjusting its ruling accordingly.” See: State v. Bell, 264 Ore. App. 230, 331 P.3d 1062 (Or. Ct. App. 2014).


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Related legal cases

State v. Bell

Bearden v. Georgia