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Harris County and court costs

Grits has some interesting local news.

An appellate court has ruled that all court fees in Harris County criminal cases, going back for some indeterminate amount of time, are invalid if the county did not produce a written “bill of cost” documenting their source, as the county apparently, routinely failed to do. Moreover, the issue need not have been preserved at trial for court costs to be appealed. The implications are potentially profound.

Former Office of Court Administration chief Carl Reynolds, who retired earlier this year and is one of the few Texas criminal justice experts who’s willing and able to enthusiastically discuss court costs with you, emailed to notify Grits of an opinion last week out of Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals (uploaded here; see all the filings in the case), which ruled, as Carl put it, that “Harris County does not comply with [Texas Code of Criminal Procedure] 103.001 by failing to create a bill of costs in each case. If a judgment lists the court costs, but there is no evidence in the record to support those costs, then no costs are owed. Often these costs total many hundreds of dollars and are garnished by TDCJ from commissary funds, or they become owed as conditions of probation. The issue is therefore very important. It need not even be raised in the trial court to preserve it for appeal.” (emphasis added)

What does it mean? Translated from court-speak, if the government can’t justify the court costs it assigns in writing in a formal bill of costs – as apparently Harris County is not set up to do and has not historically done – then the defendant does not owe any court costs! That’s really pretty huge.

There’s an update here, and you should read both posts. This sounds like there could be a significant financial impact on counties all over Texas, not just Harris. It’s their own fault for playing so loose with the law, of course, it’s just that they never got called on it before now. It’ll be interesting to see how this mess gets resolved.

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