State Supreme Court to hear dispute over court costs

By Ed White

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- A man who pleaded guilty to a drug crime was sentenced to a year in prison. He also was hit with a $1,000 bill, his share of the cost of having a case in a western Michigan courthouse: legal help, lights, phone, security, even the fitness room used by employees.

"The county fitness center?" asked Anne Yantus, an attorney for Fred Cunningham.

"Correct," replied Allegan County court administrator Mike Day during a 2012 hearing.

Cunningham's tab now has reached the docket of the Michigan Supreme Court, which will hear arguments Thursday to determine whether convicts can be ordered to pay a slice of the court's operating expenses on top of other penalties. Critics say criminals, many with low income, are being unfairly tagged just because they're criminals.

Judges statewide have used their discretion to order local court costs, citing a 2006 law that refers to the ability to impose "any cost." The attorney general's office is defending the practice, saying the Legislature could have restricted the meaning of the law but didn't.

"There are certainly people keeping an eye on this case," Day said in an interview, referring to court officials in other counties.

The State Court Administrative Office in Lansing, which offers guidance, says courts may impose a "reasonable amount" and aren't required to calculate costs for a specific case.

Cunningham's debt was broken down as $500 in court operating costs and $500 for having a court-appointed attorney. The $1,000 bill represented 83 percent of the financial penalties ordered by a judge after he pleaded guilty to obtaining drugs through fraud.

Day said Allegan County uses a sliding scale that is based on the ability to pay. The maximum is $1,000; $500 if a defendant doesn't need a court-appointed lawyer.

The court collected $195,000 last year, including $14,446 for attorney reimbursement, Day said. He noted that some costs paid in 2013 had been ordered by judges years earlier.

"It helps," he said. "The money that comes back here certainly assists the county. The county is our funding unit."

The Supreme Court agreed to take Cunningham's case after the state appeals court, 2-1, affirmed the decision of an Allegan County judge. The dissenting judge, Douglas Shapiro, said his colleagues followed the wrong legal precedent. He's also concerned about fairness.

"Convicted felons have committed crimes and we punish them for doing so. ... However, the costs of operating the government itself is borne by all Michigan residents, not merely or particularly by those that run afoul of the law," Shapiro said.

Cunningham's attorney, Yantus, said costs must be limited to the specific expenses of a case, not overhead such as keeping the lights on or removing trash at the courthouse.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and a statewide group of defense attorneys filed a brief, urging the Supreme Court to erase Cunningham's bill.

"The greater the assessment of court costs, the more difficult it is for an indigent defendant to complete the sentence," they said. "As a result, indigent defendants will remain under the thumb of the state for much longer than their wealthier counterparts."

Published: Tue, Apr 1, 2014