Convict to justices: Michigan court fees are unconstitutional tax

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
The Salvador Rendon case prompted the city of Warren to pass Ohio’s first local bestiality ban, with tougher penalties and no requirement to prove physical harm, allowing investigators to rely on witness testimony and forensic evidence. It also helped pass a statewide anti-bestiality law effective this month.

Lansing — A high court decision on court costs assessed at felony sentencing could hit a key source of funding for the operation of Michigan trial courts.

The Michigan Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday on behalf of defendant Shawn Cameron, a Washtenaw County man who appealed the $1,611 in court costs he was assessed when sentenced for an assault in 2013.

The Washtenaw County trial court upheld the cost in 2015, saying it was calculated with a formula that included the court's average $16.9 million budget and the court's average annual felony filings. But Cameron's attorney argued on appeal that the cost was an unconstitutional tax since it was an “undefined amount” set by the courts instead of the Legislature.

“The court is free to raise its entire budget, if it wants, off the backs of criminally convicted individuals because the statute doesn’t say what can’t be included,” said Cameron’s lawyer, Marilena David-Martin.

The majority of Michigan residents never participate in the criminal justice system, said Washtenaw County assistant prosecutor Mark Kneisel, and shouldn’t have to pay as if they did.

“A criminal case starts when a criminal, in this case, kicks a woman in the head or sells heroin or uses a gun,” Kneisel told the court. “Those volitional actions by a very small percentage of Michiganders who pay these costs come from a specific use of the system on their own behalves. It does behoove them to have a system that’s properly funded and robust.”

Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office, along with the Prosecutors Association of Michigan and the Michigan Association of Counties, argued in defense of the cost in amicus briefs.

Schuette’s office said the cost was more of an assessment than a tax, one that “contains sufficient limitation and guidance to constitute a valid delegation of authority” from the Legislature to the judiciary.

State law empowers trial courts to impose on convicted felons a set cost, regardless of the complexity of their cases, to finance the court system’s personnel, operations and maintenance.

The court fees generated roughly $38 million statewide in 2016 and $41 million in 2017, according to the State Court Administrative Office. About $64 million of the nearly $80 million collected between 2016 and 2017 came from district court cases. 

Some judges are uncomfortable with the responsibility of being both taxman and impartial jurist, according to an amicus brief from the Michigan District Judges Association. The association wrote that the law presents an “insidious problem” and “inherent conflict of interest” for judges who have to determine someone’s guilty or innocence while determining how that individual will pay to fund their courts.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan and Legal Services Association of Michigan also opposed the court-funding cost.

 “It forces the judges to have a financial stake in the cases on their docket,” the judges association wrote in their brief. “…even the most honorable judges will be pressured to convict and impose fines and costs to ensure the operation of their courts.”

Ingham County District Judge Thomas Boyd wrote in a July letter included in the filing that he was told in 2005 that district court was the "cash cow of local government" and was summoned by the county commission in 2006 to explain why he wasn't generating as much revenue as another judge. 

"The pressure to fund the district court in sentencing is real," Boyd wrote. "It is a potentially corrupting presence in each and every criminal case."

Sentencing should be about the protection of society, the rehabilitation and discipline of the offender, and to deter other similar crimes, Boyd wrote, "not to generate revenue for operation of the court or its funding unit."

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