Federal lawsuit accuses Harris Co. of assessing 'unlawful' court costs

John Suayan, Galveston Bureau Apr. 11, 2013, 9:03am

HOUSTON - Two Harris County men are suing the county over what they consider "unlawful court costs," recent court documents say. 

In a class action lawsuit filed April 4 in Houston federal court, Onesimo Perez and Jonathan Hawes assert the defendant assesses court costs against criminal defendants without the prerequisite bill of costs as mandated by state law.

The suit shows Perez supposedly owes $447 following a driving while intoxicated conviction while Hawes contests a bill for $215 stemming from a marijuana conviction. The plaintiffs claim they were threatened with arrest if they do not remit payment.

"While Harris County had no lawful right to charge court costs, its policy was to issue criminal arrest warrants against those who refused to pay," the original petition says.

"Thereby the county used its threat of arrest by armed police to force those plaintiffs to pay the unlawful costs."

Perez and Hawes argue the defendant "did not even have a policy or mechanism for producing a bill of costs in a criminal matter" from April 2011 until late last year.

According to the suit, the respondent's alleged practices "amount to (a) little more than armed extortion."

"As a direct and proximate result of the attempt by the defendant to collect court costs taxed from the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs have suffered actual and immediate harm, in that they have been deprived of their property at the threat of incarceration," it states.

Attorney David Mullin of Mullin Hoard & Brown LLP in Amarillo is representing the complainants.

Case No. 4:13-CV-966

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