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Iowa courts increasing efforts to collect old fines

By Rod Boshart, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Sept. 13–Court officials at the state and county levels are stepping up their efforts to collect unpaid fines and fees.

State Court Administrator David Boyd said legislative efforts to fortify collection efforts to recoup past-due obligations in the face of shrinking revenues are beginning to be felt by people who run afoul of Iowa laws.

“The Legislature has approved new collection procedures and reinforced several existing procedures to improve collection of unpaid fines and court fees,” Boyd said in a statement Tuesday. “As a result, our collection net is larger and stronger.”

Court debt is deemed delinquent if it is not paid within 30 days after the date it is assessed.

Court spokesman Steve Davis said outstanding debt owed to the state’s court system for items like unpaid criminal judgments, civil fines or past-due parking tickets totaled more than $558 million as of June 30. Of that total, 71 percent of the past-due debt involved criminal cases — many where the debtors either were indigent or incarcerated – and 24 percent related to traffic violations.

Judicial branch officials have entered into a contract with the Kansas City law firm of Linebarger, Goggan, Blair, and Sampson LLP to collect court fines and fees that have been unpaid for more than a year. The private, third-party collection agency that was contracted after a competitive bid process is authorized by state law to add 25 percent to the amount owed for their fees.
Boyd said the program was tested in Jasper County in August and recently was expanded into 19 counties — Adair, Adams, Calhoun, Cedar, Cerro Gordo, Clarke, Dubuque, Greene, Hamilton, Hancock, Henry, Marion, Mills, Muscatine, Sac, Tama, Wayne, Winnebago, and Worth. On Wednesday, Appanoose, Audubon, Clayton, Crawford, Davis, Delaware, Louisa, Madison, Monona, Montgomery, and Page counties will be added, with more to be involved later.

Also, Boyd said, the state reinforced an existing collection procedure that involves county treasurers. State law requires a county treasurer to refuse to renew a vehicle registration when the vehicle owner owes unpaid fines and court fees. Once an owner pays the debt, the county treasurer will allow renewal of the registration.

Previously, a treasurer was not allowed to accept payment of the court debt. An individual seeking to release a vehicle hold had to pay the clerk of court, and then return to the treasurer’s office with a receipt, he noted. In July, treasurers in many Iowa counties began accepting payments for unpaid fines and fees, with an additional $5 processing fee charged for this service.

Currently, 84 of the 99 county treasurers offer the service, which Boyd said is implemented at the discretion of each county office.

The state also expanded the type of court debt treasurers could collect during the vehicle registration renewal process. Prior to July, the process applied only to unpaid court debt arising from criminal and traffic cases. Now, the process covers all unpaid court fees due to the State of Iowa, including those arising from civil cases, such as divorces, contract disputes, and small claims cases, Boyd said in his statement.

“Originally, the registration renewal process was not designed to pursue collections of debts owed in civil cases,” he noted. “Recent statutory changes, however, have expanded the scope of the process to include court fees of all kinds. Hopefully, this change will compel more people to pay.”

In addition to the new third-party collection agency and the expanded role of county treasurers, Boyd said the judicial branch is continually working to strengthen collection efforts. For example, clerks of court around the state are working to unearth old debt and add the information to the judicial branch database. Once in the database, the debt will trigger a number of fine collection procedures.

“Because clerks are adding old cases to the system, we are catching older, unpaid fines and fees,” he said. “In some cases, the debts are so old that people simply forgot about them. Even so, they still owe a debt to Iowa taxpayers, which we expect them to pay.”

During the last fiscal year, the judicial branch collected about $163 million — with $146 million going to the state’s general fund and nearly $17 million to county and city governments.|

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