Ohio Supreme Court rules courts don’t have to consider ability to pay when imposing fees

Photo: Courtesy of the Ohio Supreme Court

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a split 5-2 decision that courts do not have to consider a defendant’s present or future ability to pay court fees when deciding whether such costs are applicable, overturning an appellate judge’s earlier ruling. 

The case stems from a complaint filed by Darren Taylor who was convicted of murder and other related charges connected to a lethal attempted robbery in 2013. Taylor was sentenced to 36 years in jail, as well as $6,500 in restitution and $9,000 in court costs. Taylor argued he only received $19 per month in prison employment and therefore was indigent. 

“There is no reason that Taylor should be constitutionally entitled to receive more protections than other civil debtors just because his debt came about through criminal-court proceedings rather than through some other mechanism,” Justice Patrick DeWine wrote in the majority opinion

In the opinion, the justices noted that a 2013-era Ohio law requires judges to impose court costs on convicted defendants in all criminal cases; however, under this law, courts can “waive, suspend or modify” these payments. The law’s language, according to the opinion, does not include specific criteria for when to waive, suspend or modify court costs. 

Justices Sharon Kennedy and Judith French concurred with DeWine’s opinion, and Justice Patrick Fischer concurred in judgement only; Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor concurred, adding that the state may incur additional burdens trying to collect payments from a defendant who lacks the ability to pay. 

Justices Melody Stewart and Michael Donnelly dissented. 

Stewart argued in her dissenting opinion that since the purpose of the 2013 law is to offset court costs’ burden on taxpayers, a defendant’s ability to pay must be considered. She said 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.” 

A Montgomery County common pleas judge originally rejected Taylor’s request to have his court costs waived, citing that Taylor “must take responsibility for his conduct, as well as the resulting consequences,” according to an earlier report by the Ohio Capital Journal

The case was appealed and remanded to the Second District Court of Appeals, which concluded that the statute implied courts must consider a defendant’s ability to pay when weighing appropriate extradition fees and court costs. 

Taylor’s case attracted the attention of civil rights groups — including the NAACP and the ACLU of Ohio — because of the state’s continued imposition of debt with high interest rates on poor, incarcerated Ohioans.