Mich. court cost system stays in place — for now

ALPENA–Defendants convicted of a crime can be asked to pay for the work it takes to convict them of that crime, the state’s highest court said last week.

In a two-sentence ruling, released last Wednesday, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld a 2017 Michigan Court of Appeals decision saying that, despite challenges, assessing court costs to convicted defendants is not an unconstitutional tax.

In addition to fees and disciplinary fines, defendants convicted of a crime are assessed court costs intended to pay for some of the day-to-day expenses of running a court, including staff salaries, utility costs, and office expenses.

A case that appeared before the Michigan Supreme Court challenged the constitutionality of those costs, calling them an illegal tax. Justices ruled last week stating their verdict: court costs can be called a tax, but they can legally be assessed.

At Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court, court costs are set at $700 per defendant, according to Bonnie Friedrichs, Alpena County clerk. The $700 currently assessed, Friedrichs said, doesn’t cover all the actual expenses of processing any one case through the court.

There is not a set court cost amount in the 88th District Court. Instead, the judge at sentencing takes the recommendations of a probation staff into consideration when imposing costs, making a decision commensurate with the individual case.

Local judges are understanding and fair toward defendants who are unable to pay at once, according to Alpena defense attorney David Funk. But, he said, the state’s current policy of paying court employees on the backs of defendants is a concern.

If a defendant does something criminal that requires the government to incur expenses beyond those they already have, passing those expenses on to the accused is fair, Funk said. If, however, an employee is being caused to do something they would already be doing — something taxpayers are already paying them to do — those costs should not become the responsibility of a convicted defendant.

“It rankles me a little,” Funk admitted. “If you have 100 clients come through here and reimburse every cent of two employees’ salary, the taxes that I pay aren’t going to drop any.”

The state is forced to address the question of the legality and advisability of the current system of funding trial courts because of a statute that runs out in fall of 2020, requiring the state to have a new funding system in place.

“Separating courts from the revenue they create is imperative and fundamental concept,” according to a report by the state-created Trial Court Funding Commission. The advisory group endorsed the creation of a case weight formula to determine an amount, based on caseload and type, that would be paid by criminal defendants to cover the costs of running a local court, with the amount to be decided by the state instead of by local courts.

That recommendation will be taken under advisement by the state Legislature as the 2020 deadline for court funding change looms closer.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.