County District Attorney looks for revenue in unpaid court fines
by Eddie Burkhalter
eburkhalter@annistonstar.com
Apr 19, 2013 | 4485 views |  0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Those with outstanding fines in Oxford’s Municipal Court may want to make those payments, as the fines may soon increase by 30 percent.

Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh has asked the city to allow his office to collect unpaid criminal court fines that are at least 90 days past due, as allowed by state law.

An additional 30 percent would be added to each fine, with the District Attorney’s Office receiving 75 percent of that extra money and the city getting the remainder.

Fines that would increase are criminal court-related fees like failure-to-appear fines, unpaid traffic tickets, restitution payments not made and fines for theft.

The money would be collected by the McVeigh’s three-person restitution recovery division, which currently collects similar unpaid fines for county courts.

“I think everybody’s assumption is that all government agencies are funded by the government,” McVeigh said, explaining that in reality it takes multiple sources of revenue to keep his office operating.

And some of that money can’t always be depended on, he said.

“We have sustained ourselves, probably a quarter to a third of our funding for a long time, with money off of bad checks,” McVeigh said of the funding his office gets from tracking down those who commit such offenses. “When you have the increased usage of check cards and credit cards, people write less checks, and all of a sudden you have less money coming in.”

McVeigh declined to give his office’s yearly operating budget, but said about 25 percent comes from state appropriations, another 25 percent from bail bond fees and the remainder from collection of bad checks and restitution recovery.

Last month, his staff collected $36,000 in unpaid fines through the county’s district court, McVeigh said.

Unlike cities like Anniston, which use a private company to collect court fines, Oxford has just one person doing that job. Municipal Court Clerk Linda Nettles said her court collects unpaid fines by automatically issuing an arrest warrant in each such case.

“We do have a warrant officer that actively works on those warrants, but a lot of them do get picked up in traffic stops,” Nettles said, adding that the person may spend time in jail, and may or may not pay their fines, but it costs the city to incarcerate them.

Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge put the average daily cost of keeping a person behind bars at $45.

McVeigh said that rather than wait until someone is arrested, investigators in his office would contact that person to collect the fines, thereby keeping them out of jail.

“We call them, drop by, leave cards with people and continue to remind them they owe the debt. And a lot of people will come pay it at that point,” McVeigh said.

McVeigh said payment plans can be set up as well, “that way the city’s getting its money and this person can continue to have their job and not worry about getting arrested.”

Partridge said he supports McVeighs proposal.

“Any time you can get the money paid from the fine in, it’s better than them sitting in jail,” Partridge said.

With just less than $100,000 in uncollected criminal court fines, McVeigh said he isn’t sure how much his office can collect, but any money would be a boost to both the DA’s office and the city.

“Any money is more than what we’ve got,” McVeigh said.

Nettles said Oxford’s municipal court charges $354 for each failure to appear, which would increase to $460 under McVeigh’s proposal. Oxford’s theft charge – which Nettles said makes up the majority of the city’s unpaid fines – would increase from $654 to $850.

If the City Council agrees, and after his staff acclimates to the extra work, McVeigh said, he hopes to expand the practice to other cities.

Councilwoman Charlotte Hubbard said she also believes the proposal would be good for both the District Attorney’s Office and the city.

“It’s an excellent resources for us,” Hubbard said, noting that McVeigh’s staff is already trained to do the work.

Hubbard said she hopes a resolution to accept McVeigh’s request will be ready for the council’s vote at Tuesday’s regular meeting.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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