Delaware Passes Landmark Law Ending Abusive Fines and Fees

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · October 4, 2022

Gov. John Carney on Monday signed a new bill that will drastically overhaul how Delaware can impose and collect fines and fees. Thanks to the state’s bevy of fees and surcharges, traffic tickets and simple misdemeanor fines can quickly balloon and trap people in a never-ending debt cycle. 

“We applaud the state for passing this sweeping legislation,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Jaimie Cavanaugh. “This bill recognizes that being poor is not a crime. It gives Delawareans a fair chance to pay down court debt without sacrificing everyday living expenses.”

HB 244 will implement multiple reforms, including:

  • Repealing almost all fines and fees for minors in criminal cases; 
  • Prohibiting courts from charging interest or imposing fees for late payments, failing to pay, or paying in installments; 
  • Eliminating fees that charge people for using a public defender or for being under probation supervision; and 
  • Establishing new reporting requirements to track revenue generated from fines and fees. 

In addition, under HB 244, Delaware can no longer suspend drivers’ licenses for unpaid court debt. Losing a license, even temporarily, jeopardizes a person’s ability to support themselves and their family. And since so many people need a car to commute to work, a suspended license only makes it more difficult to pay off their debts. 

Ending the state’s debt suspension policy will help thousands of residents, a reform already enacted in more than 20 other states. In 2017, Delaware suspended licenses for 13,000 drivers, simply because they failed to pay off their court-imposed fines and fees.

The Institute for Justice, which litigates property rights cases across the country, regularly challenges unconstitutional fines and fees. Last fall, IJ filed a lawsuit challenging Wilmington’s tow-and-impound racket, which pays private tow companies by letting them keep and scrap cars. In 2019, IJ secured a landmark victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in Timbs v. Indiana, which declared that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies to local and state governments, not just the federal government.