Poor? Found Not Guilty? N.H. Sends You a Bill, Anyway
Tobias Tarr spent the afternoon of June 17, 2017 tending to the garden at a homeless shelter in Keene.
That evening, still covered in dirt, Tarr found himself in an awkward situation: a resident of the facility had arrived home drunk and agitated.
“I sat with him on the couch and just calmed him down. He had it in his head that he wanted to beat somebody up upstairs,” says Tarr.
After some time, Tarr tells the shelter manager that he can’t control the guy, and that he should call the cops. Keene Police arrive, and Tarr says they all crowd into a room in the shelter--law enforcement, shelter staff, a few residents, and the intoxicated guy, who is starting to lose control.
Tarr, aware that the situation was turning sour, says he wanted out of that room. So he stood up, but his movement was like striking a match.
“Chaos, and I cannot stress enough, chaos,” says Tarr.
Police allege that Tarr made physical contact with an officer and ignored commands. They tackled him, they tackled the drunk guy. Everybody is yelling. At some point, a table gets flipped.
Law enforcement would later say that during the scuffle, Tarr reached for an officer’s gun. He was arrested, treated at the hospital for his injuries, and then placed in jail.
“I didn’t do anything, why am I getting charged with this? So I ended up having to take it to trial,” says Tarr.
Police have their version of what happened, Tarr has his.
With no money, the court appoints him a public defender. In February 2018, he goes on trial for a range of charges, including a felony that could put him in prison for years: attempting to take a firearm from a law enforcement officer.
The jury in Cheshire County Superior Court finds him not guilty on all counts.
“Incredible,” says Tarr, describing the verdict. “It really could have ruined my life.”
The 43-year old walks out of court a free man. But there is something waiting for him.
“I got a bill from them in the mail. I didn’t have the money to pay seven-hundred and something dollars.”
In the state of New Hampshire, as in most states, indigent defendants--people deemed too poor to afford their own lawyer--are still required to pay for part of their legal defense. These charges apply even when they’re found innocent, or when the charges are dropped.
“So really, by definition, this whole process is designed to squeeze blood from a stone,” says Gilles Bissonnette with the ACLU of New Hampshire.
“These are poor people, the court has found these individuals indigent. They’re constitutionally entitled to representation, yet they get a big fat bill that they need to pay the state.”
The state agency in charge of collections is called the Office of Cost Containment, or the OCC. Established by lawmakers in the late 1980s, it functions as a government debt collector, bringing in $1.5 million into the general fund annually. It handles approximately 20,000 cases each year, with defendants accused of misdemeanors facing bills of around $300; felonies are more than $800.
These collection practices have their share of critics.
“There is an oxymoronic quality to the proposition that the OCC exists to collect money from poor people who have been appointed counsel because they are poor,” says Albert “Buzz” Scherr, a law professor at UNH’s School of Law.
“There seems to be some illogic to it.”
Scherr, along with the ACLU of New Hampshire, are backing a bill that would prohibit the OCC from collecting money from defendants found not guilty, or who have their charges dropped. Senate Bill 237, which is scheduled to come up for a vote this week, would also direct judges to make a determination of any counsel fees or fines at the time of sentencing. Currently, the OCC is able to begin its collection efforts after a public defender is assigned.
The bill comes as New Hampshire lawmakers reevaluate aspects of its criminal justice system. In 2018, a bipartisan group in Concord passed a bill to curtail the use of cash bail. This year, they’re also poised to repeal the state’s death penalty.
The OCC legislation is sponsored by Sen. Shannon Chandley, a Democrat from Amherst. She points out that a handful of other states, including California and Kansas, already exempt people found not guilty from having to reimburse the state.
“So this bill would bring us in line with what those states are already doing, we are not breaking new ground here,” she says.
But leadership at the OCC stresses that the state, mindful that it is dealing with people deemed indigent, attempts to work with its clients. The OCC routinely sets up long-term payment plans, or allows those without a source of income to have extensions, interest free.
“We are asking you to support a service that you are provided,” says Charlie Arlinghaus, Commissioner of Administrative Services, which oversees the OCC. “Whether you are convicted or not convicted. But it is not meant to be a punishment.”
Arlinghaus testified against the provisions put forward in Senate Bill 237, but says it is ultimately a policy decision that lawmakers need to decide.
Tobias Tarr has his own perspective on his legal fees. He was facing years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, which makes $750 seem like small potatoes.
“Is it fair, no? It’s not fair. But that’s the lesser of spending numerous years in prison for something I didn’t do,” he says. “So I would gladly pay it. Do I think it’s right? No, I don’t. But since I have to pay it, I will pay it.”
Tarr is a stone mason, and doesn’t have steady work. But he says he will make his first $10 payment to the OCC this month. At that rate, he’ll have the debt paid off in a little over six years.