TUCSON - Pima County Public Defender Joel Feinman believes the Pima County Attorney’s Office has been wrongly enforcing hefty fines in certain drug plea deals for decades, with thousands of defendants potentially impacted.
Feinman said his office made the discovery earlier this year.
“This fine was ruled by the Arizona Supreme Court way back in, I believe, 1996 that it didn't apply to 'preparatory' drug offenses,” said Feinman. “That cab include solicitation or facilitation. These [charges] are less serious charges than straight up possession.”
Feinman said the Pima County Attorney’s Office had been presenting those fines as mandatory in these plea deals.
“For the last twenty years, hundreds of clients have plead guilty to these preparatory drug offenses and been forced to pay these illegal fines,” he said.
The fines start around $750, and can run upwards of $1500. Feinman said some of that money went towards the State Public Safety Commission.
“We need to recognize that a lot of the money that is going to fund the criminal justice system is money we're taking out the pockets of poor people,” he said. “We're taking it out the pockets of defendants.”
Feinman said the wording of the fine has been changed following his office’s findings, with the removal of the word ‘mandated’.
The Pima County Attorney’s Office maintains the fees were rightfully imposed, but did agree to review the imposition of fines for 750 defendants. Many of those defendants have already had their fees waived.
The County’s Chief Criminal Deputy, Tom Weaver, issued the following statement to News 4 Tucson on the matter:
“There are fines in preparatory drug offense pleas that are being waived based on law that it not new. The case law dates back to 1989/90. The fines in those pleas are not mandatory.Nevertheless, defendants, with the advice of defense counsel, agreed to those fines. (The pleas are very favorable to the defendants.) The pleas were accepted by the court.
We do not agree with Joel’s assertion that the fines are 'illegal'. The fines are within the lawful range for felony offenses. Courts can waive the fines due to the economic circumstances of the defendant. Our office, upon request of the defense, will substitute community service for the fines.“
It remains unclear what could happen to those who already paid the fees. Feinman said he believes that number could be in the thousands, and urges anyone who believes they were wrongly forced to pay to contact his office.