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Appeals court rules convicted man not on hook for $18K jail bill


A convicted Missouri man is not on the hook for an $18,000 jail bill Montgomery County attempted to impose on him after his criminal case was moved to the area, an appellate court ruled Tuesday.

Douglas Boston pleaded guilty to child molestation charges in January 2015 and was sentenced to 14 years behind bars. While serving his time in state prison, however, Boston received a notice from a debt collector demanding he owed an $18,493 bill imposed on him by Montgomery County. The state had already paid nearly $6,000 to the county as part of that bill, but still, the county required the full amount from Boston.

While Boston’s case was ultimately decided in Montgomery County, it had originated in neighboring Warren County, and state statute “is very clear cut” in who is responsible for jail costs in change of venue cases, argued Matthew Mueller, a Missouri public defender who served as counsel for Boston in his appeal of the bill. State law, Mueller said, puts the original county on the hook for the costs. 

The Missouri Court of Appeals in the Eastern District sided with Mueller, about two months after he argued the case before it.

“[W]hen a change of venue has occurred in a criminal case, the county that originated the prosecution by indictment or information — in this case, Warren County — is responsible for costs even though the prosecution was handled and concluded in a separate county — here, Montgomery County,” the court ruled. “Accordingly, we hold that … Montgomery County’s only recourse was to seek recovery of its costs from Warren County.”

In its opinion, the court maintained Montgomery County was “without statutory authority to seek or recover costs from Boston or the State, such actions were improper,” and an earlier trial court’s decision not to retax Boston’s cost was in “error.”

But, Mueller noted, the court took its decision a step further and ruled any costs already recovered by Montgomery County — such as from the state — be refunded. He said there are at least several dozen other cases with a change in venues in Missouri that could ultimately be impacted by the court’s decision.

“Any of those cases where the state has already paid, could they be entitled to a refund? This case is really interesting in that respect,” Mueller told The Missouri Times.

It’s possible Warren County could attempt to collect any debts from the state or Boston — especially if Montgomery County seeks reimbursement from it — but Mueller speculated it would remain the county is on the hook for the total cost and not get reimbursed.

Boston, 42, pleaded guilty to child molestation in January 2015 and received a 14-year sentence. He could be eligible for parole after he’s served at least 85 percent of his sentence, Mueller said.

“That was my big point when I argued to the Court of Appeals,” Mueller said. “I know that my client is in prison right now. He is going to be released at some point, he’s going to be coming back into society, and he doesn’t need these debt collectors coming at him for something he doesn’t owe. He’s not responsible for those costs. Let him try to get on his feet without trying to worry about this when he gets released from prison.”

Earlier this year, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision courts could not threaten people who are unable to pay their jail debts with additional prison time. The state’s highest court deemed in March there is no statutory authority for the practice of taxing jail debts — or “board bills” — and requiring people who struggle to pay the fines to repeatedly appear in court with the threat of further incarceration, thus creating a potentially never-ending cycle.

Multiple state lawmakers, as well as the attorney general, have also sought to end the practice of so-called debtors’ prisons.