ACLU, civil rights attorneys accuse Montco court of overcharging defendants

The Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

The Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and several civil rights attorneys have filed a class-action lawsuit in Commonwealth Court against the Montgomery County Court administration, saying defendants have been overcharged for court costs.

“We want them to stop it, and we want them to stop asking people to pay the illegal amounts that were already assessed,” said Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The ACLU, the law firm of Langer, Grogan & Driver P.C., and Seth Kreimer, a legal professor at the University of Pennsylvania, sued on behalf of five individuals.

During a criminal conviction or guilty plea, defendants pay court costs. These fees, generally intended to generate revenue, are created by the state legislature.

“This isn’t a fine. It’s not to punish you. It’s just the judicial system trying to recoup costs from the people who are unfortunate enough to end up in the system. And the legislature has passed laws authorizing specific costs to be imposed on people who plead guilty to or are convicted of crimes,” Roper said. “But the problem is that in Montgomery County in some cases, they are double-billing defendants. So if you plead guilty to two charges, they are imposing costs twice instead of just once.”

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, argues that none of the state statutes that determine court costs allows for fees on each charge. Roper noted that the practice by the Montgomery County Court administration is not new behavior.

“Originally, a few years ago, we got a complaint from someone who had been billed a number of sets of costs because he had a number of different charges in his case, and he had a private attorney who was able to somehow straighten it out with the court,” Roper said. “But that made us wonder how often this happens. And as we started looking into it, we realized that it was happening hundreds of times a year.”

The ACLU says it sent a letter to the Montco court back in May 2018 asking it to stop imposing duplicative court costs — to no avail.

“These duplicative costs are flatly illegal and unconstitutional. Frankly, this practice should have been eliminated without the need for litigation,” John Grogan, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said in a press release.

When contacted by WHYY News Tuesday for a comment on the lawsuit, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts said, “At this time, we have nothing further to offer.”

According to the ACLU, from 2008 to 2018, Montgomery County Court overcharged defendants by hundreds of dollars in nearly 13,000 cases.

“Unfortunately, the court’s response was not to stop it. They do it less now than they used to, but they, I think, [have] taken a position that they have a right to double-bill people, and they just don’t,” Roper said.

The practice is disproportionately putting an “insurmountable” financial burden on low-income defendants who cannot pay the court costs,” the ACLU said.

“For poor people, adding on hundreds of dollars to what they owe the court just makes it harder for them to reestablish their lives after they’ve had a problem with the criminal system,” Roper said.

Although the lawsuit seeks an end to the practice and current collection of alleged illegal costs, previous defendants who have been overcharged could benefit.

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