If you are convicted of a relatively minor drug crime in California, the court may decide to impose a fine in lieu of other punishment. In those cases, paying the fine might be your best alternative. If you pay the fine and are otherwise eligible, you may be able to obtain expungement a year after you are convicted.
Most California drug cases do not end with “fine only??? punishments. When fines are assessed in addition to other punishments, they can be substantial. When defendants have the ability to pay, California law requires the court to impose a $1,000 fine upon defendants who are placed on probation for a first offense felony drug possession conviction. That fine increases to $2,000 when probation is imposed for a second offense. Even misdemeanor convictions carry the potential for a stiff fine in addition to other punishments.
Fortunately, there are often alternatives to the payment of drug fines. Some of those depend upon a defendant’s ability to pay a fine while others are available without regard to financial resources.
The felony possession fines discussed above are “mandatory??? in the sense that a judge must impose the fine if the convicted defendant can afford to pay it. If the defendant lacks the ability to pay, however, the law provides that “community service shall be ordered in lieu of the fine.??? Some courts will allow convicted defendants to work off other drug fines by performing community service if they do not have financial resources that will allow them to pay a fine.
Lacking the ability to pay does not mean that the defendant is living in poverty. A drug defense lawyer can often make a convincing case that a defendant lacks the ability to pay by submitting evidence that the defendant’s wages are already committed to the payment of rent, transportation expenses, child support, and other necessary expenses. Convincing a judge that the defendant has no substantial savings and no disposable income is the key to obtaining community service in lieu of a fine.
DRUG DIVERSION PROGRAMS
In some cases, your defense attorney may be able to work out an agreement that allows you to enter a diversion program. Depending on the county and the kind of program you enter, you may or may not be required to enter a “guilty??? or “no contest??? plea before you enter the program. In either case, once you enter the program, further criminal proceedings are suspended pending your completion of the program’s requirements.
The primary requirement of a drug diversion program (other than avoiding new arrests) is the completion of a drug education or drug treatment program. You may also be randomly tested to assure that you are maintaining complete sobriety while you participate in the program.
If you complete the diversion program successfully, no conviction will be entered. That means that no fine will be imposed.
In theory, at least, no person can be jailed for the failure to pay a fine if that person has no financial ability to pay the fine. In practice, some people who might be able to afford paying a fine in installments would prefer to serve some jail time in lieu of paying the fine. The number of days you must serve to discharge a fine depends upon the county in which you are convicted and the size of the fine.
Serving jail time to avoid paying a fine is usually a last resort. Convicted drug defendants will sometimes make that choice in order to save their money. The defendants who choose jail over money are usually those who have experience with jail sentences and feel comfortable with their ability to serve the time.