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Court News Ohio

Courts Not Required to Consider Defendant’s Ability to Pay When Weighing Court Costs

A trial court does not have to consider a convicted criminal defendant’s present or future ability to pay court costs when considering the defendant’s request to have the costs waived, suspended, or modified, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

A Supreme Court majority found that Ohio law gives trial courts wide discretion when considering whether to “waive, suspend, or modify” court costs, and the law does not express what a judge must consider when deciding to retain or change the amount owed.

The decision reversed a Second District Court of Appeals split decision that found the terms of R.C. 2947.23(C), which gives judges the ability to reduce court costs, imply that a trial court must consider a defendant’s ability to pay.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice R. Patrick DeWine wrote that R.C. 2947.23(C) does not impose that obligation on trial courts, and noted “the proper role of a court is to construe the statute as written without adding criteria not supported by the text.”  The Court remanded Darren Taylor’s appeal of his court cost modification request to the Second District for further proceedings.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Judith L. French joined Justice DeWine’s opinion. Justice Patrick F. Fischer concurred in judgment only.

Chief Justice O’Connor also wrote a concurring opinion, stating that where there is “strong evidence” of a defendant’s inability to pay, a trial court’s failure to consider the defendant’s present and future ability to pay may be an abuse of discretion. The chief justice also stated that the General Assembly should amend the statute to require trial courts consider a defendant’s ability to pay due to the burden that uncollected court costs have on courts, defendants, and the families of defendants.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Melody J. Stewart wrote the Court’s job is to interpret both the text and “purpose” of a state law, and the purpose of the court cost law requires a judge to determine whether the defendant can pay immediately or in the future.

Justice Michael P. Donnelly joined Justice Stewart’s dissent.

Defendant Seeks Payment Waiver
In 2013, Darren Taylor was convicted of murder for his involvement in an attempted pawn shop robbery that resulted in the deaths of a store clerk and one of Taylor’s accomplices. The trial court sentenced him to 36 years to life in prison and ordered him to pay restitution and a to-be-determined amount of court costs.

Taylor appealed his convictions, which were affirmed by the Second District, and he later asked the trial court to vacate or suspend his restitution and court cost orders. Taylor argued that as an inmate he was indigent and received only $19 per month in wages for prison employment. The trial court denied the request, and Taylor appealed.

The Second District affirmed the restitution order, but in a 2-1 decision found the trial court abused its discretion by denying the waiver of court costs while not considering Taylor’s indigency and ability to pay. Taylor argued he would be in his 80s, or older, when released from prison and he would unlikely ever be in a position to pay the costs.

The Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office appealed the decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Imposing Costs Mandatory; Removing Costs Optional
The majority  opinion noted that under R.C. 2947.23(A)(1), in all criminal cases the judge shall impose court costs on a convicted criminal defendant. But under R.C. 2947.23(C), a trial court can “waive, suspend, or modify” the payment of prosecution costs at the time of sentencing or any time after.

The language of the law does not contain explicit criteria a court should use in deciding whether to waive, suspend, or modify court costs, and the Supreme Court stated that Taylor’s case raised the question of what criteria, if any, a court must use to make the decision.

Taylor maintained the three options in the law – waive, suspend, or modify – imply there must be consideration of ability to pay. Taylor maintained if a defendant cannot pay the costs in the future, then waiving the costs is appropriate. If the defendant cannot pay now, but may be able to pay in the future, then suspension is appropriate. And if the defendant can pay only a limited amount now, then modification would be justified.

The majority opinion, however, held that it would not read implied criteria into a statute without some textual basis for doing so. It noted that while the defendant suggested one set of possible criteria, other criteria might also be appropriate. The opinion cautioned that courts should “tread carefully” when attributing implied criteria to a statute, because the court runs the risk of enlarging the meaning of a statute.

 “The danger in finding implied criteria in a statute is that there can be a tendency to find what one wants to find rather than what is actually there,” the opinion stated.

The majority opinion also noted that when lawmakers wanted to make a defendant’s ability to pay a requirement, they have “done so explicitly.” The opinion cited R.C. 2929.19(B)(5), which imposes fines on those committing certain felonies. That law states that the court must consider the ability to pay when imposing fines.

Concurrence Asserted Considering Ability to Pay Warranted
In her concurring opinion, Chief Justice O’Connor noted that requiring a defendant to pay court costs when the defendant lacks the ability to pay creates other costs for the state when it attempts to collect those costs, and the time and money spent by the state on those collection efforts could be better spent on more important responsibilities.

She also noted that requiring payment from a defendant lacking the ability to pay imposes significant “unintended consequences” on the defendant, such as potentially excluding the defendant from federal benefit programs for the poor.

“The burden is real. Each of these harsh realities impedes a defendant’s ability to reintegrate into society and, together, those impediments can make the challenge of reintegration insurmountable,” the concurrence stated.

Dissent Maintained Consideration Required
Citing the Court’s 2015 State v. Black decision, Justice Stewart wrote the Court is supposed to examine the purpose of a state law when asked to interpret its meaning. She stated the Court majority has failed to adequately consider the purpose of R.C. 2947.23 — which is to recoup court costs from convicted defendants in order to lighten the burden of paying for criminal proceedings that falls on Ohio taxpayers.

By focusing exclusively on the text of R.C. 2947.23, the majority opinion “fails to see what is right under its nose — that to achieve the statute’s purpose, a trial court’s consideration of the defendant’s ability to pay is required,” the dissent stated.

“At bottom, R.C. 2947.23’s purpose of relieving Ohio taxpayers’ financial burden is not advanced when a court attempts to collect court costs from a defendant who lacks the present or future ability to pay, nor is it advanced when collection results in only nominal payment that does not cover the costs associated with the collection effort,” the dissent concluded.

2018-0797. State v. Taylor, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-3514.

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