Fines, restitution, and court costs have been a recent hot topic in Pennsylvania’s appellate courts.

Since September 24, 2019, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and Superior Court have issued five published opinions dealing with the financial consequences defendants regularly face in the criminal-justice system, be it in the form of fines, restitution, or court costs.  To follow is a summary of the holdings from those case, some of which I’ve previously blogged about.

Comm. v. Gary-Ravenell, 2019 PA Super 289 (Sept. 24, 2019): In this case the court noted the important distinction between a fine and court costs.  A fine is “a part of a defendant’s actual sentence,” whereas costs are “not part of the sentence, but [ ] an incident of the judgment.  Before imposing a fine, the law requires that the sentencing court determine (1) if the defendant is or will be able to pay the fine, and (2) if imposition of a fine will prevent the defendant from making restitution. Costs, on the other hand, are mandatory and the law provides for them automatically even absent a court order. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9721(c.1). However, a person cannot be imprisoned for failure to pay costs “unless it appears after a hearing that the defendant is financially able to pay . . . the costs.” See Pa.R.Crim.P. 706(A).

Comm. v. Ford, __ A.3d __ (Pa., Sept, 26, 2019): The Supreme Court held that the Sentencing Code’s requirement that the sentencing court make an ability-to-pay determination before imposing a non-mandatory fine does not go away merely because the defendant agrees, as part of a plea deal, to pay a fine. That’s so, the Court reasoned, because in the plea-bargaining context, the primary concern of most defendants is the length of their incarceration rather than the sum of their fines, and most defendants, to forgo imprisonment, will gladly accept the offer to pay a fine though they have no realistic strategy to satisfy the debt.

Comm. v. Muhammed, 2019 PA Super 294 (Sept. 30, 2019): Here, essentially the Superior Court held that the sentencing court’s order of restitution was illegal because it was not causally connected to the crime Defendant pled guilty to. The factual context follows.

Appellant’s first claim focuses on the imposition of restitution for property that was not lost or damaged as a direct result of his conviction for criminal trespass. By way of further background to this claim, we note the following. At the plea hearing, Appellant admitted that he entered the victim’s home, “remained inside, that items were removed and/or damaged,” and that he knew he did not have a legal right to be in the residence. N.T. Plea Hr’g, 3/5/18, at 9. Appellant, however, pled guilty to criminal trespass, and the Commonwealth withdrew the charges related to theft. Moreover, Appellant’s co-defendant did not plead guilty to a theft offense.

On appeal, Appellant argues that because he pled guilty to criminal trespass, “only property that was ‘unlawfully obtained or its value substantially decreased as a direct result of the trespass may be ordered as restitution.” Appellant’s Brief at 18. Appellant asserts that “[i]t is improper for the [trial c]ourt to order restitution for any counts for which [Appellant] was not convicted.” Id. at 18. Specifically, Appellant challenges the trial court’s decision to impose restitution for property that was stolen or damaged after he entered the home. Id. at 19.

This claim goes to the legality of the sentence. See Weir , 201 A.3d at 172 (noting that “[b]ecause of the statutory language ‘directly resulting from the crime,’ restitution under § 1106(a) is proper only if there is a direct causal connection between the crime and the loss.” (citation omitted)).

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Here, Appellant and his co-defendant pled guilty, and in doing so, admitted to conduct consistent with those crimes. At the restitution hearing, the trial court concluded that the items missing from the victim’s residence were a direct result of Appellant’s and his co-defendant’s criminal conduct. However, because neither Appellant nor his co-defendant were held criminally accountable for the theft of items from the victim’s home, the trial court imposed an illegal sentence when it ordered restitution for those losses.

Comm. v. Hunt, 2019 PA Super 296 (Oct. 1, 2019): The court held that the October 2018 amendment to the restitution statute (18 Pa.C.S. § 1106) to include “limited liability companies” in the definition of “victim” did not apply to defendant, whose crimes and sentence pre-dated that amendment. (Defendant was convicted and ordered to pay restitution for stealing from his corporate employer.)  The court said, “[W]e conclude that the inter-related definitions of ‘direct victim,’ ‘individual,’ and ‘natural person’ pursuant to the pre-amendment version of § 1106 do not include corporate entities as discussed above.”  However, the court in a concluding footnote provided the sentencing court an alternative for accomplishing an award of restitution on remand.  It said this: “While the trial court will be statutorily estopped from including restitution as a component of Appellant’s direct sentence on remand, we note that the provisions of 42 Pa.C.S. § 9754(c)(8) may offer an alternative to restitution ordered as a condition of a direct sentence. Under that subparagraph, ‘[t]he court may as a condition of its order require the defendant to make restitution of the fruits of his crime or to make reparations, in an amount he can afford to pay, for the loss or damage caused thereby.’ 42 Pa.C.S. § 9754(c)(8); see also Harner , supra at 706 (‘Restitution may also be imposed as a condition of probation and, under such circumstances, the courts are traditionally and properly vested with a broader measure of discretion in fashioning conditions of probation appropriate to the circumstances of the individual case.’). Including restitution as a probation requirement would afford the trial court greater flexibility, as it is ‘considerably different than the language of 18 Pa.C.S. § 1106 which permits restitution only for losses that are a direct result of the crime.Id. at 707 n.3. If the trial court opts to proceed under § 9754(c)(8), it would have a concomitant obligation ‘to determine what loss or damage has been caused, and what amount of restitution Appellant can afford to pay, and how it should be paid.’” Id. at 707.

Comm. v. Whatley, 2019 PA Super 317 (Oct. 18, 2019): The Superior Court held that a sentencing court’s failure to consider the defendant’s ability to pay before imposing restitution as a probationary condition under 42 Pa.C.S. § 9754(c)(8), rendered the order of restitution illegal. (This was the alternative basis for awarding restitution, which the Superior Court made mention of in Hunt.)