piggy bank with wooden gavelIn a recent opinion, State v. Rieger, No. COA18-960 (filed 1 October 2019), the Court of Appeals wrestled with what appears to be an issue of first impression: how to calculate court costs following a criminal conviction.

The facts are straightforward.  Initially, misdemeanor charges against defendant were heard in district court.  After losing there, defendant appealed to superior court, where he was convicted of possession of marijuana and possession of marijuana paraphernalia.  Although the opinion is not specific, the two offenses of conviction must have been charged in separate citations and had different CRS numbers.

The trial court entered a separate judgment for each conviction, assessing court costs for each.  Defendant appealed, arguing that the court should have imposed court costs only once.

Addressing defendant’s issue, the Court noted that the wording of the applicable statute, N.C.G.S. § 7A-304(a) is nebulous.  It authorizes the imposition of court costs “in every criminal case” in which a defendant is convicted.  But what is a “case”?  The statute doesn’t say.  As the opinion acknowledges, sound arguments can be made both for the proposition that each charging document that can produce a conviction is a “case” (the State’s position), and for the proposition that all the criminal charges disposed of together constitute the same “case,” (defendant’s position).

After surveying the strengths and weaknesses of both arguments and divining no solution in statutory analysis, the Court turned to legislative intent and policy.  The Court of Appeals had previously held that court costs are not criminal punishment and thus not punitive.  State v. Arrington, 215 N.C. App. 161, 714 S.E.2d 777 (2011).  Instead, current civil and criminal costs were statutorily created to provide “for the financial support of the judicial department, and for uniform costs and fees in the trial divisions of the General Court of Justice.”  N.C.G.S. § 7A-2(6).  Thus, according to the Rieger court, “court costs are meant to reflect the financial burden that a defendant’s interaction with the justice system creates.”

Applying this analysis to the facts at hand, the Rieger Court held that “[w]hen multiple criminal charges arise from the same underlying event or transaction and are adjudicated together in the same hearing or trial . . . the trial court may assess costs only once, even if the case involves multiple charges that result in multiple, separate judgments.”  The Court then vacated the imposition of costs in one of defendant’s conviction.

The case raises interesting questions.  Under the Court’s analysis, why should the costs imposed be the same for a six-week trial as for a negotiated guilty plea?  The burdens on the court system are different.  More to the point, despite the aspirational language of N.C.G.S. § 7A-2(6), the court system receives only a relatively small percentage of the funds collected from the imposition of court costs.  Yet the gracefully written opinion details why no entirely consistent resolution of defendant’s question is possible.  Moreover, as the opinion points out, even though costs are not intentionally punitive, they fall most heavily on those least able to pay them.

Nevertheless, it is predictable that this opinion will result in diminished collections of court costs by the state.  Will the General Assembly amend the statutes to ensure that the state’s general fund does not run dry?  Could such a tactic run afoul of SCOTUS’ recent holding that states may not impose excess fees, fines, and forfeitures?  Timbs v. Indiana, 139 S.Ct. 682 (2019).

What are your thoughts and predictions? Let me know in the comments below.

–Bob Edmunds