Bearden v. Georgia
In Bearden v. Georgia (1983) 461 U.S. 660, the Supreme Court held that a court cannot revoke probation and imprison an indigent defendant because he has not paid a fine and restitution absent a showing that the defendant failed to make bona fide efforts to do so and that there is no alternative methods of punishment available. ( Id. at pp. 672-673.)
The court was considering imprisonment because of indigence and specifically said, "we do not suggest that, in other contexts, the probationer's lack of fault in violating a term of probation would necessarily prevent a court from revoking probation.
For instance, it may indeed be reckless for a court to permit a person convicted of driving while intoxicated to remain on probation once it becomes evident that efforts at controlling his chronic drunken driving have failed." ( Id. at p. 668, fn. 9.)
The Supreme Court held that in revocation proceedings for failure to pay a fine or restitution, a sentencing court must inquire into the reasons for the failure to pay. . . . If the probationer could not pay despite sufficient bona fide efforts to acquire the resources to do so, the court must consider alternate measures of punishment other than imprisonment. Only if alternate measures are not adequate to meet the State's interests in punishment and deterrence may the court imprison a probationer who has made sufficient bona fide efforts to pay. To do otherwise would deprive the probationer of his conditional freedom simply because, through no fault of his own, he cannot pay the fine. Such a deprivation would be contrary to the fundamental fairness required by the Fourteenth Amendment. (Bearden, supra, 461 U.S. at pp. 672 -673.)
The United States Supreme Court held that a sentencing court cannot properly revoke a defendant's probation for failure to pay a fine and make restitution, absent evidence and findings that he was somehow responsible for the failure or that alternative forms of punishment were inadequate to meet the state's interest in punishment and deterrence.
The Supreme Court determined that, if a defendant's probation is revoked based on the defendant's inability to pay, the court automatically turns a fine into a prison sentence and this violates the Equal Protection Clause.
In reaching this decision, the Supreme Court inquired into the nature of the individual's interest affected, the extent to which it is affected, the rationality of the connection between the legislative means and purpose, and the existence of alternative means for effectuating the purpose. See Bearden, 461 U.S. at 666-67.
The Bearden Court considered the state's interest in punishment and deterrence, the state's interest in rehabilitation and protection of society, and the significant interest of the individual to remain on probation. After considering these interests, the Bearden Court concluded that given the significant interest of the probationer in remaining on probation rather than being imprisoned, a probationer who violates his probation cannot be imprisoned based only upon being indigent.
The Court held the Fourteenth Amendment precluded a state court from automatically revoking probation when the probationer could not pay a fine, without finding the probationer failed to make a bona fide effort to pay or that alternative forms of punishment were inadequate. However, as defendant acknowledges, Bearden said, "if the probationer has willfully refused to pay the fine or restitution when he has the means to pay, the State is perfectly justified in using imprisonment as a sanction to enforce collection.
Similarly, a probationer's failure to make sufficient bona fide efforts to seek employment or borrow money in order to pay the fine or restitution may reflect an insufficient concern for paying the debt he owes to society for his crime. In such a situation, the State is likewise justified in revoking probation and using imprisonment as an appropriate penalty for the offense." (Id. at pp. 668-669.)
In Bearden, supra, 461 U.S. 660, the Court held it is only when the probationer has made "all reasonable efforts" to pay restitution that it becomes fundamentally unfair to revoke probation automatically without considering whether adequate alternative methods of punishing the defendant are available. (Id. at p. 669.)