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Crowdfunding Your Court Visit in an Uncertain World

Crowdfunding was intended for people to raise money for social causes or medical treatments but has now evolved to deal with the criminal justice system. It is common finding requests for fines, legal fees, bail money, or to underwrite the payment of expert witnesses at trials. With different levels of success, the prospective recipients of the crowd’s funds write up their heart-rending stories, sharing them online with family, friends, and strangers on social media, even striving to raise hundreds/thousands of dollars. At the same time, some pleas have come from people accused of breaking the law, challenging the tolerance levels of crowdfunding sites.

When a lady from Oklahoma missed paying her monthly fine by more than a week, the court ordered that she could not continue with the agreed upon plan and ordered a payment of $533 or that she earn $25 a day to make the payment by staying in jail. They also issued an arrest warrant in her name. At her friends’ suggestions, she decided to seek help online, particularly from the crowdfunding site GoFundMe where she put out a plea that she was a single mom and needs to earn a living by going to her job everyday. The begged that she was not getting help from anywhere else and that she needed as much help as possible then. Her campaign to pay off her fine has been shared 51 times but hadn’t raised a dollar and she was still subject to arrest.

Researchers note that there is nothing novel about raising funds for a good cause, but that Internet today are looking to verify the who, what, how and when before giving any money. Some people have had surprising success. A young Army veteran succeeded in raising $2,000 in less than a week to pay for a DUI fine. Though he knew all who contributed, other donors were a surprise for him. A DJ gave $150, women he knew in Australia and Portugal contributed, too. He said on his campaign page that he felt amazing just knowing that people are willing to help him. Some crowdfunding pages generate even more buzz and become viral. Other pleas just disappear in the ocean of other pleas, either because the fundraiser’s close social web is not financially stable themselves, and also because these campaigns may not get a lot of attention from strangers. Some allow donors to make use of plastic money as the community lacks cash but are willing to add to their credit card debt, in necessary.

The Incentive to Assist

Why would anyone contribute to a crowdfunding campaign if no incentive is attached like a T-shirt, tote bag or a coffee mug? People donate because they value the cause or the person. Merely putting up a page is not enough and to be successful, crowdfunders must have credibility. Many spend months building up networks, creating videos, and raising initial cash prior to launching their page. Crowd funders even seed their own money at the start, to make it seem as if others have invested.

A criminal defense lawyer required money to pay for experts and their opinion in a case of wrongful conviction, that he had taken up pro bono. With a website set up, he contacted the media, and launched a GoFundMe page. This legitimized the campaign which managed to raise $8,475 online and $5,000 offline with some experts donating their time. This saved the lawyer from paying for the required experts from his own savings and instead they were paid by the donations received from strangers and most contributions coming from colleagues and friends.

Some key crowdfunding sites resist hosting campaigns to raise money specifically for legal fees for controversial cases. Indiegogo and GoFundMe have shut pages that were fundraising to pay for the legal fees for policemen involved in racial/police custody death cases. Crowd funds cannot be allowed to benefit those people who have been charged with serious legal violations.

Crowdfunding: A Constitutional Right

Indiegogo is not opposed to fund-raising campaigns for criminal case-related costs and is a public platform enabling anyone from anywhere to fund any cause or concern. The company generally has a team of people that monitors campaigns not complying with safety and standards and terms of use.  GoFundMe’s explicitly prohibits campaigns in defense of formal charges pressed for cases of violent, hateful, heinous crimes, and discriminatory acts. Any campaign that violates their Terms & Conditions is removed.

All crowdfunding sites may not take issue with such campaigns. One platform called Funded Justice specifically aids people who can’t afford legal aid in criminal and civil cases and hosts any legal non-fraudulent campaign. Founded by a lawyer, the site believes that everyone with problems, deserves to be heard in court. Crowdfunding may emerge as an equalizing force for the faceless masses. The organization Orleans Public Defenders, Louisiana needed to make up for a projected $1 million deficit in their budget and came up with a crowdfunding campaign to serve as a fundraising and advocacy tool. It was certainly easier than hosting a benefit gala. With a $50,000 target, enough to pay a single staff member, they secured $86,140.22 after appearances on major TV programs and would repeat it if the time comes.

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