Even if multiple charges against a defendant are maintained in separate court files, if the charges are tried together, the defendant is only required to pay the court costs of a single “case,” even if he is convicted of more than one of the charges
We vacate the imposition of costs in one of the two judgments against defendant.
G.S. § 7A-304(a) authorizes the imposition of court costs “in every criminal case” in which a defendant is convicted. “Case” is not defined in the statute.
For many low-income individuals, paying hundreds of dollars in court costs (in this case the courts costs are nearly $800) is beyond their reach. The consequences—possible probation violations, lack of a driver’s license, no access to credit—can lead to a cascade of crises that ultimately return even the most well-intentioned people back to the criminal justice system.
With this reality in mind, we believe court costs are meant to reflect the financial burden that a defendant’s interaction with the justice system creates. Were it otherwise—were costs designed solely to generate as much revenue as possible—they would be fines, which are a form of punishment. And we can say with certainty that using court costs as another form of punishment is not the General Assembly’s intent.
Thus, when criminal charges are separately adjudicated, court costs can be assessed in the judgment for each charge—even if the charges all stem from the same underlying event or transaction. But when multiple criminal charges arise from the same underlying event or transaction and are adjudicated together in the same hearing or trial, they are part of a single “criminal case” for purposes of § 7A-304. In this situation, the trial court may assess costs only once, even if the case involves multiple charges that result in multiple, separate judgments.
Vacated and remanded in part.
State v. Rieger (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-265-19, 11 pp.) (Richard Dietz, J.) Appealed from Buncombe County Superior Court (Alan Thornburg, J.) Deborah Greene for the state; Edward Eldred for defendant. N.C. App.