Case could upset a key source of cash for local courts
Detroit – The Michigan Supreme Court is hearing a dispute over $1,611. The result, however, will carry a much higher price, impacting millions of dollars now raked in from criminal defendants who must pay to keep the heat turned up, the air conditioners humming and the floors waxed in local courts all over the state.
The Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder have given local governments sweeping authority to put a portion of court operating costs on the backs of people convicted of crimes, often the poor. The question for the Supreme Court on Monday is whether the law is an illegal tax.
Counties, prosecutors and the attorney general’s office are urging the Supreme Court to keep the money flowing. On the other side is an alliance of defense lawyers and judges who call the practice unconstitutional. Many District Court judges, who are on the front line of Michigan’s justice system, handling traffic tickets and drunken-driving cases, say they’re pressured to hit financial targets or face consequences, including cuts in staff.
“Judges who determine innocence or guilt of an individual, with the ability to impose jail, should not be forced to think about bringing in finances for the court and county from these defendants,” said Maria Ladas Hoopes, a judge at Muskegon County’s District Court, who calls it an “inherent ethical dilemma.”
Thomas Boyd, a District Court judge in Ingham County, said he’s comfortable with crimes carrying financial penalties.
“But there’s a difference between someone paying for their poor choice and paying to keep the lights on,” he said. “The question is: Can we create a system where that isn’t directly related to keeping the lights on in the courthouse?”
The case at the Supreme Court involves Shawn Cameron Jr., who was convicted of assault in Washtenaw County. As part of his sentence, he was ordered to pay $1,611 in court costs, based on a local formula that included a 10-year average of the Circuit Court’s budget and an average number of felony cases.
The law is broadly written. When computing costs, courts can consider staff salaries, services necessary to operate the court and maintenance expenses. Courts and local governments don’t have to charge anyone, but the money is hard to resist.
“It is an unconstitutional tax because it is set by the courts, rather than the Legislature, and set in an undefined amount. … Criminal defendants are not a special class of citizens who must bear the expenses of government by means of a higher tax imposed on them alone,” said Cameron’s lawyer, Marilena David-Martin.
About $80 million was collected statewide in 2016 and 2017, with 80 percent coming from hundreds of thousands of District Court cases, according to the State Court Administrative Office.
The Michigan Association of Counties argues that criminal defendants simply are paying a “user fee,” not a tax. The group compared the cost to a homeowner who puts out two trash cans instead of one and is charged more than a neighbor.
“Those who are convicted have, by their wrongful conduct, imposed expenses on the justice system, which in fairness should be at least partially charged to their accounts,” attorney Mattis Nordfjord said in a filing at the Supreme Court.
Coincidentally, the case comes at a time when Michigan is studying possible changes to how courts are funded. Led by Boyd, the 14-member commission has been hearing from experts across the country and diving into data. Recommendations are due by next September, but lawmakers and the next governor might need advice sooner, depending on the outcome of the Supreme Court case.
“Our recommendations are going to be about values and public safety, not necessarily about how to generate the most cash from every interaction with law enforcement. That’s not what anybody should want,” Boyd said.
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