City of Whitefish v. Curran

1. Can a court impose a fine on someone with a demonstrated inability to pay?
2. Is it an abuse of discretion to fail to offer alternatives to a fine when the statute allows such alternatives?

1. The municipal court may impose a fine on someone who is unable to pay, as long as the court does not specifically require the individual to use government income that is exempt from attachment.
2. It is a reversible abuse of discretion to fail to consider alternatives to fines, when the statute allows, but a court is not obligated to impose those alternatives. In this case, because the court mistakenly concluded that it did not have discretion to suspend the fine or to enforce the fine through other alternatives, the failure to consider these was an abuse of discretion.

On March 8, 2020, 73-year-old Thomas Curran was cited for driving under the influence (DUI) and pleaded guilty. By statute, the possible maximum sentence of the offense was  imprisonment for not more than 6 months and a fine of not less than $600 or more than $1,000. As part of the plea, Curran agreed to the minimum $600 fine, believing that the court would consider his ability to pay at sentencing.

On August 11, 2020, the Municipal Court held a sentencing hearing during which Curran detailed his financial situation: he was unable to work due to an injury, and his medical expenses and rent exceeded his monthly social security payment, though he conceded that he received an initial COVID-19 stimulus check and might receive another sometime in the future. Curran requested the court suspend the fine entirely due to his inability to pay. 

The Municipal Court believed it did not have the discretion under the statute to offer any alternative methods by which Curran could satisfy the payment, and imposed the $600 fine, setting a payment hearing in 60 days to discuss whether he received further stimulus payments or was able to find work. Curren appealed the sentence prior to the 60-day hearing, arguing that the discussion of the stimulus check payments and his lack of other income amounted to an order to pay the fine using this stimulus check, which was not subject to court attachment.

Procedural History
Curran appealed to the District Court of the Eleventh Judicial District, County of Flathead, which affirmed the municipal court. Curran then appealed to the Supreme Court of Montana. The majority reversed and remanded the case on the abuse of discretion issue.

Court’s Reasoning
The Montana Supreme Court held that because the lower court did not explicitly require Curran to use protected stimulus check benefits to satisfy the debt, its imposition of a fine on Curran was lawful, even if there was a suggestion he otherwise would not be able to pay. Although Curran argues this discussion of his stimulus check and setting of a future hearing at which whether he had stimulus money would be discussed amounted to  “practically order[ing] him to use protected benefits to satisfy the fine,” the Supreme Court disagreed. It reasoned that the written order imposing the fine made no mention of payment using the stimulus check, simply noting that other income may be available. The court concluded that “there is a difference between a sentencing court creating a debt and requiring protected benefits be used to satisfy a debt.” 

The court, however, agreed that the failure of the municipal court to recognize it possessed discretion to consider or offer alternatives to the fine was itself an abuse of discretion. It noted that although a sentencing court does not have the discretion to waive a statutorily mandated fine–even in light of inability to pay–this obligation does not preclude the court’s ability to determine the method of satisfying the fine once imposed. According to Montana law, the court has the authority to suspend Curran’s fine or order donation to a food bank in lieu of payment, which it did not do. 

The Montana Supreme Court declined to address Curran’s challenge to the constitutionality of the statute as a whole because he failed to raise the claim in the municipal court or in the initial appeal to the district appellate court. 

Concurring Opinion
A succinct concurring opinion sided with the majority on the abuse of discretion issue, leading to remand and reconsideration of the sentence, and agreed that the failure to raise the constitutional issue below precluded the Court from considering it. However, it suggested that the dissent’s belief that it is unconstitutional to impose a fine on someone found to be unable to pay is hard to disagree with, noting “I have little doubt that this issue will be squarely presented to us in the future and that Justice McKinnon’s [dissenting] words will be cited back to us.”

A strongly worded dissent reasoned that imposing a fine on one who is unable to pay is itself unconstitutional and called out the majority’s “[b]lind adherence to the artificial distinction between imposition of a debt and how it is enforced. . . which ignores the very important realities of poverty.” It criticized the idea that the statutory alternative of providing donations to a food bank in lieu of a fine made sense, given Curran’s indigency and that he “likely could benefit from a food bank donation himself.” The dissent argues the majority “ignores the reality of indigency,” which “does not disappear because the court adjusts the method by which the fine will be paid.” 

It is important to note that the majority acknowledged the merits of the constitutional argument in a footnote, even if it declined to address them in this case. 

City of Whitefish v. Curran
Supreme Court of Montana
June 20, 2023
531 P.3d 547