Commonwealth v. Diaz and Commonwealth v. Smetana

ACLU-PA cases, where Mr. Diaz and Mr. Smetana were illegally jailed in Lebanon County for nonpayment of fines and costs.

Court/Assoc.: County Court of Common Pleas

Attorneys/Firms: Andrew Christy (ACLU-PA)

The Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas held Mr. Diaz and Mr. Smetana in contempt at the same “costs and fines day,” where dozens of individuals who had missed payments on their fines and costs were brought before the court for contempt hearings. Neither individual had any ability to pay, as each was out of work and had struggled with homelessness. To avoid jail, Mr. Diaz offered to sell his blood plasma, and Mr. Smetana offered to borrow money from his sister. The court put each in jail for 30 days and imposed a payment plan of $100 per month.

The Superior Court vacated the finding of contempt and the imprisonment, explaining that the court had failed to make findings on the record that they had an ability to pay. Pennsylvania law places the financial obligation solely on the defendant, who cannot be required to borrow money from friends or family. Once a court determines that an individual is indigent, that finding precludes a finding that the person has willfully refused to pay; instead, he or she lacks the ability to pay. The Court also invalidated Mr. Diaz’s sentence because the court did not provide him with an attorney, which it must do whenever there is a “likelihood” of imprisonment.

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