Whether you’re a victim of a crime or a defendant who has been convicted of a crime, if you’re looking for information about California’s victim restitution laws, you’ve come to the right place.
We’re a statewide law firm that both defends people accused of crimes, and advocates for victims of crimes.
In this article, our California criminal defense attorneys1 explain the ins and outs of California victim restitution law by addressing the following:
- 1. What is Victim Restitution & Compensation?
- 2. What happens at a restitution hearing?
- 3. Paying Victim Restitution
- 4. Special circumstances
- 5. The Difference between Criminal Victim Restitution and a Civil Lawsuit
If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
Victim restitution (compensation) refers to a victim’s right to recover any economic losses that he/she incurred as the result of another person’s criminal wrongdoing. “Victims” may include
- the person who suffered a direct or threatened physical, psychological, or financial harm,
- the family of the individual who suffered a loss, or even
- a business, government or other entity who has suffered a loss due to another person’s criminal acts.2
Financial losses include (but are not limited to):
- stolen, damaged or destroyed property (property damage),
- medical and/or therapy bills,
- lost wages if the victim was unable to work due to the crime (which includes court and travel time),
- damage to a business or its property, and
- any reasonable attorneys’ fees that were incurred by trying to collect the ordered restitution.3
Victim restitution (sometimes referred to as a restitution order) is different from general restitution (which is also referred to as a restitution fine).
As West Covina criminal defense attorney John Murray4 explains, “Victim compensation is money that the defendant pays directly to the victim for his/her wrongdoing. A restitution fine is money that a criminal defendant pays in every case to the state’s Restitution Fund which helps support the California Victims Compensation Fund. This amount varies depending on whether the defendant was convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony and ranges from $100 to $10,000.”5
The Victims Compensation Fund is a program that provides compensation to victims of violent crimes. If a person meets the eligibility criteria, the program will compensate for many types of services when the costs are not covered by other sources, such as
- funeral expenses,
- relocation, and
California law provides that victims of crime are entitled to recover the full amount for any reasonable losses or expenses.6 The prosecutor in criminal court is not even allowed to reduce this amount of restitution during a plea bargain, because he/she has no right to waive any claims on the victim’s behalf.7
As a side note, there may be times where the defendant enters into a plea agreement with the prosecutor whereby a charge that is related to the victim’s loss gets dismissed. When this happens, the court can still order the defendant to pay victim restitution as long as the prosecutor first obtains what is known as a Harvey Waiver from the defendant. Once signed, a Harvey Waiver entitles the victim to restitution on any dismissed count connected with the case.8
The victim is entitled to collect full restitution from the defendant even if the victim is separately reimbursed by an insurance payment.9 However, if it is the defendant’s insurance company that pays the victim, the defendant is entitled to have the insurance payment deducted from his/her remaining victim restitution obligation.10
If the full amount isn’t known at the time of the defendant’s sentencing — which is when restitution must be requested and ordered as a condition of probation — the judge can include a provision that victim compensation will be ordered based on an amount “to be determined”.
The amount will then be determined during a restitution hearing.11 And regardless of whether the exact amounts of victim restitution amount is set at sentencing hearing or later at a restitution hearing, if the victim discovers additional losses after the restitution order is made, it can be amended as appropriate.12
If…at the time of sentencing…either
- the victim doesn’t know the exact amount of his/her losses, or
- the defendant wishes to contest the requested amount,
the case will proceed to a restitution hearing.
The victim has the burden of proving that the defendant’s criminal conduct substantially caused the victim’s losses. The defendant’s conduct doesn’t have to be the only factor that contributed to the loss, as long as the conduct was at least a substantial factor.13
The victim must prove that the amount of compensation he/she is requesting is proper. The standard of proof is “a preponderance of the evidence”…a legal concept which means “more likely than not”.14 Evidence such as
- business records,
- medical expenses, and
- profits lost
are all admissible at the hearing.15 If the victim doesn’t have this type of documentary evidence, he/she can simply explain what he/she believes were his/her losses through a victim impact statement. If the defendant disputes this amount, it is he/she who then has the burden of proving that the requested amount is inappropriate, perhaps by obtaining his/her own estimates.16 The defendant always has the right to challenge the amount ordered for reimbursement.17
After determining how much victim restitution or compensation a defendant will be required to pay, that payment becomes a part of the defendant’s probation sentence. Depending on the circumstances, the judge will either
- require the defendant to pay the victim the full amount in one payment, or
- set up a payment plan for the defendant to make installment payments (a much more common approach).
If the victim is uncomfortable having the defendant make payments directly to him/her, the victim may request that payments be made to the local probation department which will then forward payments to the victim.18 When this is the case, the defendant may have to pay an administrative fee of up to 10% of the restitution amount.19
If the defendant fails to make timely payments, the victim may contact the prosecuting attorney so that he/she can schedule a probation violation hearing. A willful failure to pay can result in a probation violation, incarceration or other additional penalties. Failure to pay solely because of a financial inability to do so cannot be penalized.20
When a defendant claims that he is unable to pay, the court may order him/her to obtain a job (in order to pay restitution) as a condition of probation.21
And if the defendant was convicted of sexual assault on a minor or of assault or battery on a person 65 years or older…which is also a violation of Penal Code 368 PC California’s elder abuse law…the judge must order him/her to seek and maintain legitimate employment to pay the cost of the victim’s medical and/or psychological treatment.22
Once a victim is awarded restitution, the order is collectible as if it were a civil judgment. This means that the victim will have all the resources available under California law to collect his/her payment. These resources include (but are not limited to):
- access to the defendant’s financial records and assets via a “defendant’s statement of assets” which the defendant must sign under penalty of perjury (subjecting him/herself to California Penal Code 118 PC perjury charges if he/she omits or falsifies information),23
- the ability to garnish wages (if the defendant is employed), and
- the ability to place a lien on any property.24
This means that if a victim utilizes these methods, a defendant’s employer may garnish his/her wages (that is, deduct a specific amount each pay period), and a defendant’s bank may freeze his/her accounts. And even if the defendant is incarcerated following his/her restitution order, California law still allows the state to collect victim compensation through an inmate’s trust account.25
3.3. What happens if the defendant’s probation expires and all victim restitution payments have not been paid?
If, by the end of the defendant’s probation term the defendant has not paid all of his/her victim restitution, the court will convert the remaining amount into a civil judgment.26
When it appears that this will be the case…that is, that the defendant will have an unpaid balance at the conclusion of probation…the defendant must prepare and file an updated financial disclosure which must be turned over to the victim upon request.27
In addition, California criminal records expungement law prohibits a defendant who has a remaining unpaid balance of victim restitution after he/she serves his/her probation sentence from obtaining an expungement of that conviction, unless and until he/she pays that remaining balance.28
There are a few California victim restitution laws that are specific to individual circumstances. These include (but are not necessarily related to):
Victims of violent crime may apply directly to the state’s Victims Compensation Program. When they do, the defendant will be required to pay his/her victim restitution to that program instead of to the victim for the full amount that the judge ordered the defendant to pay.29
If a minor (that is, a person under 18) is ordered to pay restitution, his/her parents may be liable for making those payments. The judge will take into consideration a variety of factors when determining parents’ ability (or inability) to pay including (but not limited to):
- the number of additional dependants the parents have,
- other specific financial obligations (such as mortgage payments, health insurance, food and clothing expenses, etc.), and
- the parents’ future earning capacity.30
And if a defendant has been convicted of victimizing his spouse under
- Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC California’s domestic battery law,
- Penal Code 262 PC California’s spousal rape law,
- Penal Code 273.5 PC California’s corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant law, or
- by violating a protective order,
he is not allowed to use community property to pay the restitution order until and unless all of his separate property has been exhausted.31
“Community property” is any money (including income) or property that one acquires during a marriage other than by inheritance or gift. “Separate property” is therefore any inheritance, gift acquired at any time, or money or other property that one acquires prior to marriage or after separation.
There are three major differences between (a) victim restitution in a California criminal case and (b) a civil lawsuit. They are as follows:
- Criminal victim restitution is…at least in theory…a quicker process than filing a civil lawsuit. Criminal victim restitution is typically ordered at the time of…or very close to… a defendant’s sentence. Many California civil lawsuits take years to resolve.
- In a criminal prosecution, the victim submits his/her receipts, bills, etc. to the prosecution who then presents the figures to the defense and court. In a civil suit, the defendant’s lawyer requires the victim to participate in a deposition which could last for hours or even days. A deposition is analogous to a cross-examination by the defense attorney. And,
- In a civil lawsuit filed by a crime victim, the victim’s attorney will collect a fee, generally between 30-40% of the total recovery. This is not the case with criminal victim restitution, because the district attorney…who helps present the victim’s expenses…does not collect a fee. If a victim chooses to hire a private attorney to help collect a criminal restitution order, those fees may be added to the restitution amount. Common examples are lawsuits by victims of assault and battery and wrongful death lawsuits by the family of a murder victim.
The bottom line is that victim restitution is a fundamental part of the criminal process. In fact, ensuring that an injured victim receives compensation for his/her losses is so important to the California justice system that if a defendant reimburses a victim prior to a California jury trial, the judge…under certain circumstances…may allow the parties to participate in what is known as a civil compromise.32
If the victim of a misdemeanor offense acknowledges that he/she has received satisfaction for his/her injuries, the court may release the defendant from criminal liability and prevent the prosecution from re-filing charges for the same offense.33
To learn about victim restitution in Nevada, go to our article on victim restitution in Nevada.
California Victim Compensation Program – Provides information about the state’s restitution program for both victims and defendants
- Our California criminal defense attorneys have local Los Angeles law offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier. We have additional law offices conveniently located throughout the state in Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
- California Constitution Article 1, Section 28(e). (“(e) As used in this section, a “victim” is a person who suffers direct or threatened physical, psychological, or financial harm as a result of the commission or attempted commission of a crime or delinquent act. The term “victim” also includes the person’s spouse, parents, children, siblings, or guardian, and includes a lawful representative of a crime victim who is deceased, a minor, or physically or psychologically incapacitated. The term “victim” does not include a person in custody for an offense, the accused, or a person whom the court finds would not act in the best interests of a minor victim.”)
- California Penal Code 1202.4 PC — Victim restitution fines.
- West Covina criminal defense lawyer John Murray defends clients accused of crimes throughout the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, including Rancho Cucamonga, Alhambra, El Monte and East Los Angeles.
- California Penal Code 1202.4(b)(1) PC — Restitution fines. (“(b) In every case where a person is convicted of a crime, the court shall impose a separate and additional restitution fine, unless it finds compelling and extraordinary reasons for not doing so, and states those reasons on the record. (1) The restitution fine shall be set at the discretion of the court and commensurate with the seriousness of the offense, but shall not be less than two hundred dollars ($200), and not more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000), if the person is convicted of a felony, and shall not be less than one hundred dollars ($100), and not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), if the person is convicted of a misdemeanor.”)
- California Constitution Article 1, Section 28(b) — Declaration of rights. (“(b) In order to preserve and protect a victim’s rights to justice and due process, a victim shall be entitled to the following rights…13) To restitution. (A) It is the unequivocal intention of the People of the State of California that all persons who suffer losses as a result of criminal activity shall have the right to seek and secure restitution from the persons convicted of the crimes causing the losses they suffer. (B) Restitution shall be ordered from the convicted wrongdoer in every case, regardless of the sentence or disposition imposed, in which a crime victim suffers a loss. (C) All monetary payments, monies, and property collected from any person who has been ordered to make restitution shall be first applied to pay the amounts ordered as restitution to the victim.”)
- People v. Brown (2007) 147 Cal.App.4th 1213, 1226. (“Victim restitution may not be bargained away by the People. “The Legislature left no discretion or authority with the trial court or the prosecution to bargain away the victim’s constitutional and statutory right to restitution. As such, it cannot properly be the subject of plea negotiations.” ( People v. Valdez (1994) 24 Cal.App.4th 1194, 1203, 30 Cal.Rptr.2d 4.) Accordingly, a negotiated plea may not be specifically enforced to the extent it directs the sentencing court to order less than full victim restitution unless the record contains a statement of extraordinary and compelling reasons for the limitation. “)
- California Penal Code 1192.3 — Plea of guilty or nolo contendere (no contest); plea bargaining or probation; restitution as a condition. (“(a) A plea of guilty or nolo contendere (no contest) to an accusatory pleading charging a public offense, other than a felony specified in Section 1192.5 or 1192.7, which public offense did not result in damage for which restitution may be ordered, made on the condition that charges be dismissed for one or more public offenses arising from the same or related course of conduct by the defendant which did result in damage for which restitution may be ordered, may specify the payment of restitution by the defendant as a condition of the plea or any probation