The court costs were $180. The Honor Court decision was a $50 alcohol education course. The court-ordered drug class cost $190.
For possessing less than an ounce of marijuana, a UNC sophomore, who asked to remain anonymous, would have to pay a total of $420.
On full financial aid, she could not even pay for a lawyer, much less afford the surmounting costs.
“My friends were stripping at a club, and you can make a lot of money doing that," she said. "So, I did it to make the money I needed.”
In one night, she earned all the money to pay for her drug citation. It was her first time stripping, but it wouldn’t be her last. Since her charge in May 2018, she has continued to travel to her hometown of Greensboro to work, unbeknownst to her parents.
The sophomore will also be going through an expungement process to have all records of her citation destroyed. The filing fee will be another $175.
“The average fees on these tickets can be anywhere from $300 to $1,000,” said attorney Fran Lewis Muse, director of Carolina Student Legal Services. “That’s just a lot of money for a student. I think $100 is a lot of money for a student.”
Carolina Student Legal Services offers free legal representation and advice to all full-time students, but is unable to represent students in criminal court. For drug and alcohol citations, any of the three attorneys in the office can describe the process the student will likely go through and offer suggestions.
“A judge can remit court costs under very limited circumstances,” Muse said. “The judge has to make certain findings that the person doesn’t have the ability to pay. The judge has to give notice to other municipal agencies that might have an interest in the court costs and has to give them notice in open court as to whether or not they object. So, it’s a little bit of a complicated process to remit costs. Can the judge do it? Yes. Does the judge do it often? No.”
The aforementioned sophomore said she did not think to ask for her fines to be dismissed, and was focused solely on making it through court alone and ensuring her deferred prosecution agreement.
“Many times, if it’s a first offense or a routine violation, they don’t have to have an attorney,” Muse said. “I’m very comfortable in routine violations, first-offense students representing themselves. The Orange County DA’s office works very hard to treat everybody the same whether or not they have a lawyer because some students can’t afford an attorney.”
Senior Jenna Dunsmore represented herself in court after being charged with underage alcohol possession and possession of a fraudulent ID. She said she went through a deferred prosecution agreement, whereby she admitted guilt in exchange for court fees, a suspended license, community service hours and an alcohol education course, which cost $250.
“(The judge) also made me write a five-page essay,” Dunsmore said. “The person I had at Carolina Legal Services said there was this one judge that would do that, and of course, the day I went, she was there.”
Occasionally, a judge will give another punishment alongside the court fine and court-ordered class. Whereas Dunsmore wrote an essay, sometimes a judge will tack on another $25 or $50 fine, Muse said.
After all conditions for the deferred prosecution agreement have been met, the defendant can ask for an expungement. CSLS can file this request on behalf of a student, but the student must pay the $175 filing fee. Muse said she typically recommends students expunge their charges, particularly for alcohol, drug and public urination citations.
Muse’s office goes through great lengths to ensure all records of a student’s citation are removed from public records.
“(Expungements) are not absolute,” Muse said. “It applies to government offices, not places like Mugshots.com ... We tell students to do a very thorough Google search about themselves, and if they are on one of those sites, we will send a letter with the expungement request and ask them to take it down.”
Muse said the websites have generally complied with her office’s requests. Both students credited CSLS with helping them throughout the process.
“They told me what I should say and what would happen,” said the student who turned to stripping to pay her citation. “(The attorney) was really nice and helpful.”
As a transfer student in her first semester at UNC, Dunsmore was not even aware of the services CSLS offered until her mom recommended she stop by the office.
“I went to student legal services, they were fucking A1, 10/10 would recommend, they’re the best,” said Dunsmore. “She met with me and she was like, ‘Here’s the deal: don’t hire a lawyer, you’re just going to spend $1,500 for no reason. I’m gonna tell you what you need to know.’”
Although Dunsmore said she was far more cautious after her citation, she did not stop underage drinking. The student who received a drug citation said the same.
In 2017-2018, Muse said 25 percent of the cases that came through the Carolina Student Legal Services office were criminal. She said her primary goal is to keep students safe and have them graduate without a criminal record.
“We are here to save students money. Money that could be used for books or food or other necessary expenses,” Muse said. “That beer can end up costing almost $500.”
As for the student stripping at the club, she said she's making $500 a night.
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