Criminal Law

What Are Criminal Fines?

When it comes to sentencing someone who's been convicted of a crime (he's called the "defendant"), there's usually an alternative to sending him to jail. Many state and federal criminal laws allow the sentencing judge to order the defendant to pay a fine as punishment for his crime.

Fines in the Law

A fine is exactly what it sounds like: You have to pay the court a certain amount of money. How much do you have to pay? Usually, the answer's in the criminal law or "statute" you were convicted of breaking. You may see a statute that:

  • States an exact dollar amount of the fine for any defendant convicted of the crime. For example, "Any person convicted of this crime shall pay a fine of $1,000"
  • Lets the judge determine the amount, up to a specified maximum or limit. Such a law may state, for example: "Any defendant convicted of committing this crime shall be ordered to pay a fine of up to $2,500." The judge will look at the facts and circumstances of the case - the seriousness of the crime, who got hurt, how much money was lost, etc. - to figure out the amount of your fine
  • Makes the fine amount dependent upon the crime. For example, if the crime involves stealing money or damaging property, the statute may make your fine "equal to the amount of money stolen," or maybe "two times the amount of damages" done to the property
  • Lets the judge order you to pay a fine, spend some time in jail, or both. This is very common. A typical statute will provide, for instance, "Any person convicted of this crime shall be sentenced to 30 days in the county jail, fined no more than $1,000, or both"

Be sure to check the laws that apply to your case to see if you could face a fine for your conviction and how much it might be.

How's It Work?

Generally, you have to pay the fine in full by a certain date. This date should be included in the document from the court that orders you to pay the fine - this is usually called a "sentencing order." It may be possible, though, to work out a payment plan with the court. Also, many state courts now accept debit and credit card payments for criminal fines.

Can't pay, or just don't want to? It's not a good idea to let the fine go unpaid. For one, you could end up going to jail anyway. Under federal law, if you refuse to pay the fine, the court has the power to re-sentence you to any sentence that could have applied. So, if you were facing a fine, jail time or both, and the court ordered you to pay a fine only, the court may re-sentence you and send you to jail.

Also, another federal law, as well as the laws in most states, turns a criminal fine into a lien against your property. This includes any real estate you own, as well as any personal property, like cars and boats. Generally, this means you can't sell or otherwise get rid of the property without first paying off the lien. A lien gives the government a lot of options to get the money you owe, such as:

  • Garnishment. This when the government takes money directly out of your paycheck or bank accounts to pay the fine
  • Execution and sale. This is when your property is seized by a law enforcement agent, like the local sheriff, and then sold, usually at a public auction. The sale proceeds are used to pay your fine
  • Foreclose the lien against your real estate, that is, sell your land and use the money to pay your fine

Under the federal law, the lien stays in effect until it's paid. However, the lien is no good after 20 years have passed from the date you were ordered to pay the fine, or after you die. State lien laws vary a great deal, so be sure to check the laws in your area, and talk to your attorney if you have any questions.

Using the Money

For the most part, the money paid to the courts through fines is deposited a "crime victim's fund." Practically every state has one, and they get money from the federal Crime Victims Fund, which is run by the Office for Victims of Crime. These programs give money to the victims of crimes to help pay for things like:

  • Medical costs
  • Funeral and burial costs
  • Lost wages

In addition, these programs provide other types of assistance available to crime victims, such as:

  • Emergency shelter
  • Emergency transportation
  • Psychological counseling

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I truly can't afford to pay a fine. Isn't there some way I can "work off" the debt by doing community service or something?
  • I had to pay a $250 fine for violating a dog leash law. Can I take a tax deduction for the fine?
  • Do I get a chance to try to convince the judge to give me a fine instead of sending me to jail?
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