ACLU-PA Position: Opposes
SB 516 (PN 507) amends 42 Pa. C.S. § 9730 to allow for unpaid fines, costs, and restitution in magisterial district and common pleas courts to be referred to a debt collection agency when a defendant fails to appear.
If a judge, including a magisterial district judge (MDJ), schedules a hearing for nonpayment of fines, costs, and/or restitution and the defendant does not appear, SB 516 would allow the court to send the delinquent account to a private debt collection agency. But referring debt to a private collection agency also adds a 25% surcharge to the amount owed. In other words, the bill would allow courts to impose a 25% surcharge on thousands of indigent Pennsylvanians who have already been unable to pay fines and costs due to their poverty without the defendant appearing before the court to explain the reasons for nonpayment. It would be a substantial shift from existing practice, which allows such a referral to a private debt collection agency only after the court holds a hearing and determines that the defendant is financially able to pay.
As a result, SB 516 is likely unconstitutional. In the same way that the court cannot simply order a defendant jailed for nonpayment of fines, costs, or restitution for not appearing at a hearing, the court also cannot add a 25% surcharge, which could potentially be hundreds or even thousands of dollars, onto a person’s debt by sending it to a private debt collection agency. Such an action is as clearly an infringement on the defendant’s constitutionally-protected property interest as jail would be on the person’s liberty interest.