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Judgment, Court Costs and Fines

So the Court found you guilty; are you required to pay the fines and court costs?


In the case of Strattman v. Studt, 20 Ohio St. 2d 95 - Ohio: Supreme Court 1969 the Ohio Supreme Court's opinion follows:

The idea of paying fines to the state originated sometime in the 11th century when a criminal paid a wite to the king as part of his punishment. See 2 Pollock & Maitland, History of English Law (2 Ed.), 448-451. History also reveals that most people who were unable to pay the wite were sold into slavery, presumably to repay the purchaser by labor. See id., at 460, 516. Incarceration until the fine was paid was a moderation of the slavery penalty and its primary aim was to secure payment in a more civilized manner. Cf. id., at 464, 518. Nevertheless the thrust of the original idea was that a man should work out his fine.

A major distinction between fines and costs exists. In both criminal and civil cases, costs are taxed against certain litigants for the purpose of lightening the burden on taxpayers financing the court system. As we view it, statutory provisions for payment of court costs were not enacted to serve a punitive, retributive, or rehabilitative purpose, as are fines.

An indigent person taxed with costs in a civil action is not jailed to work off this obligation. Section 15, Article I of the Ohio Constitution, expressly prohibits imprisonment for civil debt. In criminal cases, court costs, assessed to defray the administrative costs of the litigation, are likewise subject to the same prohibition. The purpose of assessing costs in criminal and in civil cases is the same, and there is no justification for imprisonment for nonpayment of costs in criminal cases but not in civil cases.

By being involved in court proceedings, any litigant, by implied contract, becomes liable for the payment of court costs if taxed as a part of the court's judgment. A judgment for costs in a criminal case is a civil, not a criminal, obligation, and may be collected only by the methods provided for the collection of civil judgments. To hold otherwise would permit that which is constitutionally prohibited. As this court stated in 1900, "money obligations arising upon contract, express or implied, and judgments rendered thereon, are debts within the purview of Section 15 of the [Ohio] Bill of Rights * * *."   Second National Bank of Sandusky v. Becker, 62 Ohio St. 289 (paragraph one of the syllabus).

Thus, while a government can require that a fine be worked off at a reasonable rate, because of its punitive, retributive, and rehabilitative interest in the person fined, it cannot require confinement to work off court costs in order to satisfy its contractual interest.


In the case of: State v. Swift, 2005 Ohio 1599 - Ohio: Court of Appeals, 2nd Appellate Dist. 2005

It is well settled that a court cannot incarcerate a person for nonpayment of court costs. Strattman v. Strudt (1969), 20 Ohio St.2d 195, 103. Court costs are civil in nature and not punitive. Id. As early as 1924, the Supreme Court held that court costs are not considered as punishment. Simon v. Eichelberger (1924), 110 Ohio St. 224, 228. A judgment for costs in a criminal traffic case is a civil, not a criminal obligation, and may be collected only by the methods provided for the collection of civil judgments. Strattman v. Studt, 20 Ohio St. 2d 95 - Ohio: Supreme Court 1969


In the case of State v. Lamb, 163 Ohio App. 3d 290 - Ohio: Court of Appeals, 2nd Appellate Dist. 2005 the court expressed it's opinions on the issue of collecting court costs.

In Swift, we recognized that "a court cannot incarcerate a person for non-payment of court costs." Swift, supra, at ¶ 21, citing Strattman v. Studt (1969), 20 Ohio St.2d 95, 103, 49 O.O.2d 428, 253 N.E.2d 749. Indeed, "[a] judgment for 295*295 costs in a criminal traffic case is a civil, not a criminal obligation, and may be collected only by the methods provided for the collection of civil judgments." Id.; see, also, State v. Self, Montgomery App. No. 20370, 2005-Ohio-1120, 2005 WL 589887, at ¶ 64 (recognizing that "courts may not confine defendants to work off court costs in order to satisfy the government's contractual interest.  

We note, however, that certain statutes now expressly permit a trial court to order a defendant to perform community service to satisfy a judgment for court costs. See R.C. 2947.23(A)(1)(a); R.C. 2929.28(B). In State v. White, 103 Ohio St.3d 580, 2004-Ohio-5989, 817 N.E.2d 393, the Ohio Supreme Court recognized that R.C. 2947.23 now authorizes a court "to impose community service upon the defendant as a method to pay off or forgive costs." Id. at ¶ 15. The White court declined, however, to address the legality of this method of collecting court costs. Id. Thus, the issue remains an open question.

{¶ 12} But even if we assume, arguendo, that the trial court acted properly in converting Lamb's court costs to community service,[6] we nevertheless conclude that he cannot be jailed for failure to work off a civil debt such as court costs. To jail a defendant for failure to pay a civil obligation unquestionably would violate Section 15, Article I of the Ohio Constitution, which provides that "[n]o person shall be imprisoned for debt in any civil action." By the same token, we conclude that to jail a defendant for failure to work to satisfy a civil obligation is equally impermissible.

{¶ 13} "[A]lthough trial courts have the authority to enforce their orders through contempt proceedings, R.C. 2705.02, an order to pay court costs is essentially a judgment on a contractual debt where the court is the creditor and 296*296 the party ordered to pay court costs is the debtor. As such, the creditor, i.e., the court, can collect only the money it is due by the methods provided for the collection of civil judgments. A contempt proceeding is not a proper method by which to collect a civil judgment." In re Buffington (1993), 89 Ohio App.3d 814, 816, 627 N.E.2d 1013, citing Heidelberg College v. Depew (1988), 44 Ohio Misc.2d 20, 541 N.E.2d 637.

Although a debtor voluntarily may enter into an agreement to work to satisfy a debt, he cannot be arrested and punished if he later changes his mind and refuses to labor. United States v. Reynolds (1914), 235 U.S. 133, 138-147, 35 S.Ct. 86, 59 L.Ed. 162; see, also, Bailey v. Alabama (1911), 219 U.S. 219, 31 S.Ct. 145, 55 L.Ed. 191 (holding that a person cannot be exposed to a criminal conviction simply for failing or refusing to perform an agreement for personal services to satisfy a civil debt); Gen. Elec. Co. v. Internatl. Union United Auto., Aircraft & Agricultural Implement Workers (1952), 93 Ohio App. 139, 158, 50 O.O. 399, 108 N.E.2d 211 ("[I]t is clear beyond cavil that any attempt by this or any other American Court to compel a person to labor against his will except as a punishment for crime would be utterly void under the XIIIth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States").


Also, in Heidelberg College v. Depew, 1988 and 7 similar citations, the court stated that;

"Money obligations arising upon contract, express or implied, and judgments rendered thereon, are debts within the purview of section 15 of the Bill of Rights , which forbids imprisonment for debt in civil actions."


OPINION: Courts cannot jail a person or demand community service to work off Court costs. Court costs are contractual in nature and are civil fines and must be enforced by methods provided for the collection of any other civil judgment. Pay the fine for the traffic infraction. Any other Court or administrative costs are civil in nature and collected as any other civil judgment.