Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Lopez

Whether Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 
706(C) requires a trial court to consider a defendant’s ability to pay prior to imposing mandatory court costs at sentencing.

Pa.R.Crim.P. 706(C) reads: “The court, in determining the amount and method of payment of  a fine or costs shall, insofar as is just and practicable, consider the burden upon the  defendant by reason of the defendant’s financial means, including the defendant’s ability  to make restitution or reparations.”

Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 
706(C) does not require a trial judge to consider a defendant’s ability to pay court costs at sentencing. 

In 2015, Alexis Lopez entered a negotiated 
guilty plea and was sentenced to 11.5-23 months of imprisonment followed by three years of probation by a Pennsylvania trial court. Six months into his sentence, Lopez was released on parole and shortly thereafter violated the conditions of parole leading to his resentencing. Prior to his resentencing, Lopez filed a “Motion for Ability-to-Pay Hearing at Sentencing to Waive Costs,” which argued that the court was required by Pa.R.Crim.P. 706(C) and the laws of Pennsylvania to assess Lopez’s ability to pay court costs and to waive them based on his indigence. The trial court denied Lopez’s motion, sentencing him to more imprisonment, probation, and ordering him to pay court costs nearing $1,700. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed.  

Procedural History
Lopez brought a motion for an 
ability to pay hearing to the Pennsylvania trial court prior to his resentencing. The trial court denied Lopez’s motion, finding that Pa.R.Crim.P. 706(C) did not require a court to consider the ability to pay prior to sentencing. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review and affirmed. 

Court’s Reasoning
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that t
he trial court was not required to consider a defendant’s ability to pay prior to imposing sentencing and related costs. The holding was based almost entirely on the dissection of Pennsylvania statutes, Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, and Pennsylvania caselaw, without so much as a mention of the basic constitutional provisions clearly implicated by the facts of Lopez’s case.  

Central to the Court’s holding was the tenet that words of a rule or statute “shall not be construed in artificial isolation but rather in the context in which they appear.” Here, because Pa.R.Crim.P. 706 §§ (A)(B) and (D) pertain exclusively to post-sentence proceedings, a reading of § 706(C) as one that uniquely concerns sentencing itself would “completely unmoor this provision from its surrounding language and context and construe its wording in artificial isolation.” Therefore, Lopez’s proposed argument that § 706(C) was intended to govern sentencing was inapposite. 

Justice Donahue dissented
, disagreeing that Rule 706(C) exclusively concerned and applied to post-sentencing proceedings. While the majority drew meaning from within the provision itself, it did so without consideration of the chapter in which the provision appeared. Justice Donahue points to the placement of Rule 706(C) in the section dealing with sentencing procedures rather than in the section addressing post-sentencing procedures. Justice Donahue also argues that the absence of any other rule governing the imposition of fines and costs, which naturally must occur at the sentencing proceeding itself, lends strong support to Lopez’s interpretation. 

You can read the court’s opinion here.  

You can read the FFJC Amicus Brief for Commonwealth v. Lopez here.

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Lopez
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
August 16, 2022
280 A.3d 887