New Hampshire Aims To Change Legal Fee Policy For Indigent Defendants
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
What happens if you're charged with a serious crime and you can't afford an attorney? In criminal cases, defendants are provided a court-appointed attorney. But in most states, so-called indigent defendants still get slapped with a bill for that legal representation, even if they are found not guilty. New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman reports on an effort there to give innocent defendants a pass.
TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: If he knew all the stress it was going to cause him, the money it would cost him, Tobias Tarr probably wouldn't have gotten involved. June of 2017, a drunk guy arrived at the homeless shelter where Tarr was living.
TOBIAS TARR: I sat with him on the couch and just calmed him down. And he had it in his head he wanted to beat somebody up upstairs.
BOOKMAN: Tarr couldn't control the guy, though. So the shelter manager called the cops. Soon, a bunch of police were on scene. The room was crowded. The drunk guy was losing it. It was tense. Then all of a sudden...
TARR: Chaos. And I cannot stress enough - chaos.
BOOKMAN: Tarr says that when he tried to leave the room, an officer thought he bumped into him. They tackled Tarr. They tackled the drunk guy. Law enforcement would later allege that during the scuffle, Tarr reached for an officer's gun. He was charged with a felony and some misdemeanors and appointed a public defender. The case went to trial.
TARR: Not guilty on all three charges.
BOOKMAN: No jail time, no fines. But there was something waiting for Tarr.
TARR: I got a bill from them in the mail. I didn't have the money to pay nearly $700-and-something.
BOOKMAN: In the state of New Hampshire, in most states, indigent defendants - people deemed too poor to afford their own lawyer - are still required to pay for part of their legal defense, even when they're found innocent or when the charges are dropped.
GILLES BISSONNETTE: So really, by definition, this whole process is really designed to squeeze blood from the stone.
BOOKMAN: This is Gilles Bissonnette with the ACLU of New Hampshire.
BISSONNETTE: These are poor people. The court has found these individuals indigent. They're constitutionally entitled to representation. Yet they get, you know, a big, fat bill that they ultimately need to pay the state.
BOOKMAN: The ACLU is backing legislation that would prevent New Hampshire from seeking that money from those found not guilty. State Senator Shannon Chandley says a couple of other states - including California, Kansas - already have that exemption.
SHANNON CHANDLEY: So this bill would bring us into line with what those states are already doing. We're not breaking new ground here.
BOOKMAN: Currently, New Hampshire brings in about $1.5 million each year through these collections. And by all accounts, the state is flexible, putting people on interest-free, long-term payment plans. Charlie Arlinghaus, who oversees the department that collects the payments, sees it this way.
CHARLIE ARLINGHAUS: We're asking you to support a service that you're provided, whether you're convicted or not convicted. But it's not meant to be a punishment.
BOOKMAN: Tobias Tarr - the guy from the homeless shelter who was found not guilty - he has his own perspective on it. He was facing years in jail, so $800 is kind of small potatoes.
TARR: Is it fair? No, it's not fair. But that's the lesser of spending numerous years in prison for something that you didn't do. So I would gladly pay it. Do I think it's right? No, I don't.
BOOKMAN: Tarr is a stonemason. He doesn't have steady work. But he's going to try to make his first $10 payment to the state this month. At that rate, he'll have the debt paid off in a little over six years.
For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman in Concord, N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.