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ACLU sues county court officials, alleging double billing

January 5, 2021 GMT

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sued court officials in suburban Philadelphia on Tuesday, alleging thousands of defendants were overbilled for court costs.

State law allows courts to assess costs created by the Legislature that are used to fund the criminal justice system, but they should be billed only once per case, regardless of how many charges or counts a defendant faces, the ACLU says in the lawsuit filed in Montgomery County Commonwealth Court.

The ACLU, along with attorneys from Langer, Grogan & Diver and Seth Kreimer, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asserts that defendants have been charged hundreds or thousands of dollars of duplicative fees per charge, instead of per case.

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“Pennsylvania law is clear that court costs are to be imposed only once per case. The Montgomery County court is intentionally violating those rules by charging defendants duplicative costs,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, wrote in an emailed statement.

Stacey Witalec, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said court officials could not comment.

An ACLU spokesperson said the organization wrote a letter to county court officials in 2018 asking them to stop the double billing. The lawsuit alleges that the court officers created an internal local policy to try to allow that multiple charges instead.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of five plaintiffs, each of whom was double-charged for some costs that added $250 to $300 to their bills.

But the group alleges that more than 500 people were similarly double-charged in the county from January 2019 to October 2020. Between 2008 and 2018, attorneys said, almost 13,000 defendants were double-charged costs in Montgomery County — more than any other county in Pennsylvania — although the problem exists in other counties, as well, they said.

The attorneys said that defendants who are found guilty or plead guilty are not being given an itemized list of court costs during sentencing, so they aren’t able to object or appeal those charges in many cases.

They also argue that many defendants are unable to pay the costs especially when they are just being released from prison, so while the initial duplicate charges might be a few hundred dollars, they can quickly multiply with late fees and interest.