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Michigan Court Costs Are Unconstitutional?

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So when you’re convicted of a crime, or a traffic ticket, you have to pay a bunch of costs. Did you know that many of those costs go back into the local court’s operating budget? So when that judge orders you to be a good convict and pay your court fees, you’re actually paying the salary of the judge’s court recorder, or paying for the copy machine they use to print your probation order. According to this source, local courts get up to 26% of their operating budget from their own generated revenues (fines, costs and imposed penalties. Not from holding bake sales).

Courts across Michigan generate $418 million per year to fund their own operating expenses. They don’t raise $418 million by finding people innocent.

But wait, there’s news. The 5th Circuit Court of the United States Court of Appeals just ruled that when judges have a personal interest in collecting costs from a defendant, they have a conflict of interest. The court said that they can’t rule in a case where their own court stands to benefit. In the 5th Circuit Court case, the judges personally didn’t benefit, but their staff salaries and operating expenditures came from some of the funds collected in court costs. And the U.S. Court of Appeals said nope.

The history of this is a bit twisted. So stay with me.

In 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court decided the People v. Cunningham case. That case threw half of a wet blanket on court fees. The Michigan Supreme Court said that the court couldn’t impose a cost unless they were authorized by the legislature to impose that cost.

And what do you think the legislature did? They ran out and passed a law that authorized the courts to collect fees. But that law is only in effect until 2020.

So someone challenged that by bringing a new court case, People v. Cameron. The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the new law as constitutional. The Michigan Supreme Court declined to look at the case.

But in the meantime, someone saw the writing on the wall, because the Michigan Trial Court Funding Commission quietly began working on a new funding scheme that sounds a little more constitutional.

So what the Michigan Supreme Court did was decline to accept the application for leave to appeal, so that $418 million in annual court funding around the state wouldn’t go poof. The Michigan Supreme Court punted in order to give administrators time to figure out how to run the courts and follow the constitution at the same time.

Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack more or less admits as much. In her concurring opinion denying leave to appeal, Chief Justice McCormack said that trial court funding is a “long-simmering” problem in Michigan. She said that denying leave to appeal will “allow our current system of trial court funding in Michigan to limp forward.” She then goes on to tell the legislature to pass the new, centralized funding scheme.

Read the rest here – Pretty interesting. The whole website is good. Each city should have one Dirty Traverse City

ABA Journal Link – Fines-and-fees system that helps fund court budget is unconstitutional, 5th Circuit rules

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