On Thursday, February 20, 2014, after the NHCLU filed an emergency petition, the New Hampshire Supreme Court took swift action delaying enforcement of an order issued by a lower Circuit Court that would have jailed a defendant simply for being poor.
On Wednesday, February 19, 2014 at 11:00 am, the NHCLU received a call from the public defenders’ office informing us that a defendant was just ordered by the Circuit Court to be jailed if he did not pay $302 in fees by the close of business. The defendant had no ability to pay this amount and was therefore at risk of going to jail within hours. The Circuit Court’s order was unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits jailing defendants who are unable to pay fines and fees assessed against them. Jailing defendants in these circumstances discriminates against the poor.
In a written order issued later that afternoon, the Circuit Court modified its morning ruling, and now required the defendant to pay all the money in his personal possession ($90) and to pay the remaining $212 balance by 9:00 am on Friday, February 21. In the order, the Circuit Court stated that, if the remaining $212 was not paid by that time “for any reason, he shall be, immediately, transported to the HCHOC [Hillsborough County House of Correction] to be held until the amount is paid in full.”
At 2:30 pm on Thursday, February 20, 2014, the NHCLU filed with the New Hampshire Supreme Court an emergency petition appealing the Circuit Court’s order. The emergency petition can be found here. At 4:30pm, the New Hampshire Supreme Court stayed in its entirety the Circuit Court’s order. The Supreme Court’s order can be found here. This was a complete victory, as the defendant was no longer required to immediately pay the $212 or go to jail. The NHCLU will be continuing to monitor whether other courts in New Hampshire engage in this unconstitutional practice that makes it a crime to be poor.