Alternative Finances

Crowdsourcing And Legal Fees: Crowdfunding Justice Or Crowdfunding Criminals?

The expression “crime doesn’t pay” was originally used in 1927 by the FBI as a motto. That, however, is not why most of us know it today. The reason most Americans know the phrase is because it was also adopted by comic book crime fighter Dick Tracy as a catchphrase in the 1930s — and caught on from there.

Whatever the origin, the longevity of the phrase is largely owed to the fact that it is evidently true. Most criminals don’t make any money because crime is inefficient, and even the few that do generally face incarceration or violent death as their retirement plan.

Plus, criminals deal with lots of legal fees — and legal fees are no joke.

Enter the magic of crowdfunding, an increasingly heralded pillar of support for defendants in need of a better way to finance their legal struggles than running up massive amounts of debt and potentially putting their house up for collateral with a bail bondsman.

But does it work? Some evidence suggests that while it has an application, that application is still rather limited. And even if it does work, does society really want it to?

The Case For Crowdfunding Justice

When we said legal fees were no joke, we weren’t joking.

Hiring a lawyer, for even a relatively simple misdemeanor (a first-time DUI for example) will likely run most defendants over $1,000; felony cases tend to start around $5,000.

The good news for some is that right to counsel is constitutionally guaranteed, meaning indigent defendants have access to public defenders. However, the definition of “indigent” varies widely from state to state, and the public defender is not entirely free in all jurisdictions. In 43 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, defendants can be charged at least partially for their state provided defense.

And having a lawyer, while vitally important, won’t cover one’s bail, court costs and fees. Bail for a felony, on average, is $55K, though admittedly that average is pulled up rather sharply by the (on average) $1 million bail for murder and the $200K average bail for rape and other violent assaults.

Subtracting out those doorbusters, the average falls to a more manageable $30K.

All a long way of saying that not only does crime not pay, but being seriously accused of a crime (even without a conviction) is really, really expensive. For a felony, the bill starts in the $8K-$10K range, and that’s a single non-violent crime.

And those costs (as is often the case) hit lower middle-class workers the absolute hardest, as they are the demographic group most likely to make just a little too much money to qualify for a public defender. To post bail, they are also the most likely to require the aid of a bail bondsman, which will cost a non-refundable 10 percent of the bail amount.

Those costs can really rack up fast, according to Michael Helfand, founder of Funded Justice, a crowdfunding platform that allows defendants in criminal and civil cases to raise money to wage their legal campaigns.

“If you need a few thousand dollars for a lawyer — most people don’t have someone that will lend them that money, or even who can. But a lot of people know 100 or more people who would give them 20 bucks,” Helfand noted.

And in some cases, those small donations have added up and really helped people. Army veteran Shawn Johnson was able to pay off a $2,000 DUI fine with the help of a crowdfunded campaign.

That campaign mostly touched Johnson’s friends and family, but also some extended community members like a disc jockey at a club the 27-year-old used to work at.

“I know the guy. I’ve talked to the guy, but I didn’t think we were close like that,” Johnson told Wired of a $150 contribution.

“Just knowing people want to help is amazing,” Johnson commented on his page. “I am truly moved.”

Some crowdfunding justice campaigns have also come with a side of viral fame, as was the case with South Carolina Black Lives Matter advocate Bree Newsome after her arrest for scaling a pole to forcibly remove the Confederate flag flying above South Carolina’s capital. The Indiegogo campaign in support of Newsome raised $125,705 toward bail and legal defense for her and other Black Lives Matter activists.

Limited Applicability

While some crowdfunded justice campaigns go viral and raise well over their expected targets, many miss.

Oregon’s Vanessa Buck launched a campaign in an attempt to hire a $2,500 lawyer for her brother (who faces charges of robbing a woman at gunpoint in an attempt to grab marijuana plant from her backyard) A few months in, and she only managed to raise about $530.

Jacqueline Smoot of Broken Arrow Arizona found herself behind bars after her dog killed some chickens. One “harboring a vicious animal” charge, a $758 fine and a missed $50 payment later, Smoot found herself with the choice of paying $533 or sitting in jail and running down that fine at $25 a day.

Smoot turned to GoFundMe for help at the suggestion of friends, who apparently liked donations via crowdfunding more in theory than in practice — as so far Smoot has only raised $10.

“You’re looking at people who would think of this as charity, and so you’re going to have a very limited number of people it’ll work for. It’s very, very rare when crowdfunding takes on a life of its own and becomes viral,” noted Washington-based attorney Kendall Almerico to The Chicago Tribune.

Helfand concurred, noting that successful use of a crowdfunding platform for legal costs resembles the use of crowdfunding in other areas, meaning that marketing and storytelling often play an important role in successfully bringing in donations.

And having a large and diverse network of people in one’s life willing to make digital donations. Fundraisers with smaller, poorer communities both have trouble raising money from their limited circle — and drawing the sort of big attention that brings in viral donations.

Discomfort With The Funded

Crowdfunding of course is used to finance all kinds of things: entrepreneurship, education and even medical treatment.

However, while “crowdfunding justice” is one way to frame this type of crowdsourcing exercise, “crowdfunding criminals” is another, less readily marketable way of describing the same activity.

After all, unlike others looking for crowdfunding, this group is rather uniquely composed of people who are accused of violating the rules of civil society — and it is not unimaginable that some might object to making it easy for that group to raise money.

And that objection becomes somewhat clearer when one subtracts out sympathetic cases like Smoot’s, arguably laudable actions like Newsome’s or understandable cases like Johnson’s.

One can easily imagine various hate or terrorist groups making use of these types of platforms — and their depressingly wide digital networks of terrible people who support them — to fundraise their legal defenses after committing violent crimes against society. There is reason to believe that such people should be denied such a platform.

And in some cases they are. Indiegogo and GoFundMe both prohibit those accused of violent crimes from using their site to get crowdfunded.

GoFundMe’s terms and conditions explicitly prohibit “campaigns in defense of formal charges or claims of heinous crimes, violent, hateful, sexual or discriminatory acts.”

GoFundMe company spokeswoman Kelsea Little also confirmed in that the site does not allow “campaigns raising funds to benefit people who have been charged with violent crimes. Period.” She further clarified that such postings are removed.

However, Funded Justice has no such limitation. Helfand noted that the site will allow any non-fraudulent legal campaign to fundraise.

And while there are no easily locatable hate groups or terrorists groups on the site, there are some rather extremely serious charges represented, including rapemurder and child sexual abuse. In both linked cases, the fundraisers are for individuals who have been convicted of their respective crimes.

 Now violent criminals are just as legally entitled to a defense as any other U.S. citizen – on that there is not argument.

But should we treat fundraising for a legal defense like it is the same thing as bringing a useful invention to market or paying for medical treatments? That it seems, is somewhat less certain.

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