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July 13, 2009

MSC Opinion: People v. Jackson

On Friday, July 10, 2009, the Michigan Supreme Court published its decision in People v. Jackson, unanimously holding that a trial courts does not need to assess a convicted defendant's ability to pay before imposing a fee for a court-appointed attorney. Instead, a court must assess a convicted defendant's ability to pay when the imposition of the fee is enforced. When an ability-to-pay assessment is necessary, the Court held that the trial court must consider whether the defendant remains indigent or whether the fee would cause manifest hardship. Finally, the Court explained that an ability-to-pay assessment is usually unnecessary where the court enters a remittance of prisoner funds under MCL ' 769.1l. The Court overruled the Michigan Court of Appeals' decision in People v. Dunbar, 690 NW2d 476 (2004). The Court's decision leaves 13 undecided cases from the 2008-2009 term including In re Servaas and Henry v. Dow Chemical.

This case arises out of Jackson’s sentence to multiple terms of imprisonment for convictions that were part of a plea agreement. At sentencing, the trial judge ordered Jackson to pay $725 to his court-appointed counsel, even though Jackson made only $200 per month at the time of sentencing and had a minimum eight years of incarceration. The trial court did not assess Jackson’s ability to pay the fees. The trial court further ordered that the Department of Corrections was authorized to remit payment of the court-imposed costs and fees from Jackson's prison account under MCL ' 769.1l. Jackson moved to correct his sentence arguing that the court should have conducted an ability-to-pay assessment. The trial court denied the motion. The Court of Appeals denied Jackson leave to file a delayed appeal. The Michigan Supreme Court granted leave in January 2009 and heard oral argument in April 2009.

In People v. Dunbar, the Court of Appeals held that the Sixth Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court's decisions in James v. Strange, 407 U.S. 128 (1972) and Fuller v. Oregon, 417 U.S. 40 (1974), requires trial courts to make an assessment of a convicted defendant's ability to pay both at present and in the future before requiring the defendant to repay the costs of court-appointed counsel. After Dunbar, the Legislature adopted statutes authorizing trial courts to impose a fee for a court-appointed counsel on convicted defendants as part of their sentences and to enforce that imposition on an imprisoned defendant. The statute does not require the trial court to conduct an ability-to-pay analysis before imposing the costs.

Jackson claimed that his Sixth Amendment rights were violated when the trial court imposed costs for court-appointed counsel without an ability-to-pay assessment. The Michigan Supreme Court reasoned that Dunbar's ability-to-pay rule is a misapplication of the Supreme Court's reasoning in Fuller, and is not constitutionally required. The MSC further concluded that the ability-to-pay rule frustrated the Legislature's legitimate interest in recouping fees for court-appointed counsel from defendants who eventually gain the ability to pay those fees. The Court proceeded to distinguish between the time that costs are imposed and the time when payment is required. The Court concluded that the latter is the time when ability to pay must be assessed. If the defendant challenges the enforcement of costs, the trial court must assess whether the defendant remains indigent and unable to pay at that time, or whether repayment would cause manifest hardship.

The MSC then turned to whether the statutory cost-recoupment scheme violated Jackson's due process rights under the Sixth Amendment because it does not require an ability-to-pay assessment. The Court concluded that the statutory scheme is constitutional because the statute's monetary calculation (Department of Corrections can remit 50% of funds in excess of $50 in prisoner's account) "necessarily conduct a preliminary, general ability-to-pay assessment before the prisoner's funds are taken." As such, the Court concluded that the statute creates a presumption of non-indigency. In the future, prisoners can overcome that presumption, but the Court cautioned trial courts that the prisoner bears a heavy burden of showing that repayment would create a manifest hardship on the prisoner or the prisoner's immediate family.

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