PHILADELPHIA — Today, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the law firm of Langer, Grogan & Diver P.C., and law professor Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania filed a class action lawsuit to stop the illegal practice by the Montgomery County court administration of charging defendants duplicative court costs when they are convicted of more than one charge.
The case is filed on behalf of five individuals who have been charged these illegal costs. It requests an end to the practice and a halt to collection of the illegal costs already assessed. The suit could benefit thousands of defendants who have been overcharged by the Montgomery County court over the years.
“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,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It’s amazing how stakeholders in the criminal legal system continue to find new ways to criminalize being poor. The Montgomery County court must immediately stop this intentional violation of the law.”
For more than a century, Pennsylvania law has provided that courts can impose only one set of costs per case. But the Montgomery County court disregards these requirements and has imposed more court costs than it is permitted to do on certain defendants for years, according to the lawsuit.
“These duplicative costs are flatly illegal and unconstitutional. Frankly, this practice should have been eliminated without the need for litigation, said John Grogan, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “Hopefully, it will end now.”
The ACLU of Pennsylvania sent a letter to the court in May of 2018, bringing the problem to the court’s attention and asking it to end the practice of imposing duplicative court costs. Instead of stopping the illegal practice, the court doubled down by adopting an internal policy that explicitly allowed the practice to continue.
Nearly a year and a half later, the court continues to assign duplicative costs more than any other in the commonwealth, save for the court in Lebanon County, overcharging defendants in over 500 cases since the beginning of 2019. In the previous decade (2008 to 2018), Montgomery County court imposed duplicative costs amounting to hundreds of dollars in nearly 13,000 cases, far more than any other county during that time span. The practice has had a disproportionate impact on low-income defendants for whom even an extra few hundred dollars of court costs can represent an insurmountable financial barrier that takes years or decades to pay.
The case, McFalls v. The 38th Judicial District of Pennsylvania, is filed in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs are represented by Mary Catherine Roper and Andrew Christy of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; John Grogan and David Nagdeman of Langer, Grogan and Diver P.C.; and Seth F. Kreimer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.
A copy of the filing is available at aclupa.org/McFalls.