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Collecting Unpaid Booking Fees in Colorado may be Illegal, Experts Say

According to legal experts, unpaid jail booking fees that sheriff’s departments across Colorado have collected for years may violate state law if the fees are being taken from people who are repeatedly arrested, such as the mentally ill and the homeless. But that hasn’t stopped at least six counties from continuing the practice.

In 2004, Colorado lawmakers authorized sheriff’s departments statewide to collect up to $30 from everyone booked into a county jail, which opponents called a tax on the poor. See C.R.S. § 30-1-104(n). For those who can’t afford to pay when they’re arrested, the jail runs an ongoing tab, leaving some people owing hundreds of dollars that can be seized if they are repeatedly re-arrested and booked into jail again.

The Denver Post reported in July 2005 that jail booking fees would be “collected from those who can and should pay,” according to George Epp, executive director of the Colorado Sheriffs Association. “The money is going to come from the drunk drivers and wife beaters and the simple assaults and shoplifters, and those people that have money when they’re booked,” he said. Within the first month of charging the fee, Denver County collected around $30,000.

However, “[t]he plain reading of the statute says they should collect the fee upfront,” said Sean McDermott, president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. “It’s similar to a low-income person running up a debt, whether it be a payday loan or a credit card they cannot pay off.” The law states that booking fees “shall be collected directly from prisoners at the time of commitment,” but does not authorize deferring the collection of unpaid fees to future jail bookings.

Denver’s City Attorney’s Office and Office of the Independent Monitor decided in 2013 that tracking and collecting unpaid fees from people booked into jail multiple times violated the 2004 statute, and required the Denver Sheriff Department to stop collecting past-due fees.

“A key purpose of this fee was to benefit the mentally ill and indigent inmates, and I was concerned that – in practice – it could be disproportionately impacting these very populations,” said Nicholas E. Mitchell, Denver’s Independent Monitor.

The Denver Sheriff Department’s decision to stop collecting unpaid booking fees caused its fee revenue to drop to a seven-year low, reducing the annual total of past-due jail booking fees by more than $113,000.

The 2004 law authorizing booking fees also requires that 20% of the revenue from the fees be dedicated to mental health and substance abuse programs, and another 20% used for deputies to receive training on handling mental health crises. Without collecting the unpaid booking fees, the programs and training would theoretically take a financial hit.

At least six of Colorado’s largest sheriff’s offices – in Arapahoe, Boulder, Douglas, El Paso, Jefferson and Larimer counties – have apparently decided that’s a hit they can’t afford to take, even if it violates state law.

El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Greg White said the issue was presented to the county’s legal adviser several years ago, who determined the collection of past-due fees was permitted under the law. The county collected more than $421,000 in booking fees in 2013. In Jefferson County, which brought in $331,601 in booking fees that same year, officials began reviewing their policy once the Denver Post contacted them about the issue.

Larimer, Boulder and Douglas counties, meanwhile, said they have no immediate plans to change their jail booking fee collection practices.

Eric Smith, a programs manager for the Mental Health Center of Denver, opposes the booking fees, calling them “an unfair tiered system as far as people who have those resources and those who don’t.”

“It’s a no-win situation for [the mentally ill and indigent]. If they don’t have the money now, why do you think they would have the money later?” Smith said. “There should be a little bit more room to accommodate people who are in difficult straits.”

Source: The Denver Post

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