Court OKs law that carries more cash penalties for convicts

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DETROIT (AP) — The Michigan Court of Appeals has turned aside the latest challenge to a state law that forces criminal defendants to pay millions of dollars a year to partially cover the costs of running local courts.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 signed a two-year extension of the law but urged the Legislature to come up with a new system.

Travis Johnson claimed his constitutional rights were violated in Alpena County when he was ordered to pay $600 each in two cases. He said it’s a conflict for a judge to oversee a case and then order financial penalties that benefit the local court when there’s a conviction.

But the appeals court, in a 2-1 decision last week, said judges don’t personally benefit from the cash and don’t decide how it’s spent by a local government.

The court said use of the money, coupled with “intense pressure” by local officials, “could create at a minimum an appearance of impropriety.”

But “anecdotal evidence from a few judges” is not enough to declare the law unconstitutional, said Judges Jane Beckering and David Sawyer.

Under Michigan law, someone convicted of a crime can be hit with a bill that partially accounts for staff salaries, utility costs and other services necessary to operate a court. The burden typically falls on the poor. Someone who is acquitted doesn’t get hit with overhead, nor do parties in lawsuits.

About $172 million was collected statewide from 2016 through 2019, mostly at the district court level, which handles traffic tickets, drunken driving cases and other misdemeanors.

In a vigorous dissent, appeals court Judge Douglas Shapiro said the law imposes an unconstitutional tax.

“There is no rational basis to apply the fees only to convicted defendants other than the fact that, having broken the law, they may be punished,” he wrote. “And as persons convicted of a crime, they have little, if any, standing in the political process and public opinion and so can be forced to pay extraordinary sums to the government, compelled under the threat of further incarceration.”

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