Millions of Americans have suddenly lost their jobs and are finding it difficult to pay for rent and other essentials, let alone other bills and debts. If you have outstanding court debt and can’t pay it, don’t ignore it—it won’t go away. And don’t assume courthouse closures mean court operations have come to a halt—they haven’t. But help may be available.
State and local governments recognize that during this public health emergency many people will not be able to pay their court debt. As a result, some jurisdictions are extending payment deadlines or halting collection practices for outstanding fines and fees. Other jurisdictions may authorize individual relief on a case-by-case basis. (Also, the state cannot intercept recovery (rebate) checks from the COVID-19 stimulus bill (Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act)) to pay for outstanding debt owed to the state or federal government.)
If a defendant fails to pay, a judge can require the defendant to appear before the court (often by bench warrant) and explain why no payment has been made. The court can also take steps to compel payment or penalize the defendant by revoking probation, suspending driving privileges, garnishing wages, or intercepting a tax refund. On top of all this, outstanding court debt (like most other debt) racks up interest and late fees.
The consequences of not paying your fines and fees can add up quickly. Even if your city or state isn’t offering the temporary relief described below, contact your court to see if you qualify for an extension or payment plan.
Some state and local governments are suspending certain court debt collection practices to ease financial burdens faced by defendants and their families during the pandemic. Examples of temporary relief include:
The temporary relief measures vary from place to place. Some of the policies are statewide, others are city-wide, and some just apply to a particular county or judicial district. Check your local or state court’s website to find out if any relief is available in your jurisdiction.
Extending payment deadlines. Some places are extending the payment due dates for tickets, fines, and fees. In California, Georgia, and Florida, some local jurisdictions have announced city- or county-wide orders extending payment deadlines. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds issued a proclamation temporarily halting court debt being declared delinquent (late). Champaign County, Illinois extended payment deadlines for 180 days with no interest or late charges assessed.
Suspending debt collection activities. Places like Delaware, Minnesota, Chicago, and some counties in Oklahoma are suspending debt collection procedures and are not currently referring court debt to collection agencies. Debt collection activities can include things like assessing additional fees for nonpayment, garnishing wages, levying bank accounts, and intercepting and seizing tax refunds.
Halting driver’s license revocations. In many states, courts can order suspension of a defendant’s driver license for failure to pay fines and fees. Loss of a driver’s license can limit a defendant’s employment opportunities (which can make paying the court debt even more difficult). North Carolina and Oregon courts have temporarily halted ordering driver’s license suspensions for nonpayment of a fine. Minnesota paused automatic license suspension for failing to appear in court.
If your jurisdiction isn’t offering temporary relief for inability to pay fines or fees, you might be able to speak to someone in the court clerk’s office and explain your situation as related to the pandemic. Many courts are suspending convenience fees for paying by phone or online, and some are expanding the normal options for defendants to make payments. It’s worth investigating what is happening in your jurisdiction with regards to payment of fines and fees.
Many courts aren’t physically open right now, but you can find information online or you might be able to reach someone by phone. Helplines might also be available via phone, text, or chat. It’s important to check back often, as courts are updating their websites frequently and policies are changing rapidly. You can also check to see if your court has a self-help center or legal aid center. If you need further assistance, consult an attorney.
Updated: April 24, 2020.