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Alpena court case sets state precedent

News File Photo The Alpena County Courthouse appears in this News file photo.

ALPENA — An Alpena County court case will be used to set precedent in future state courts following a Michigan Court of Appeals decision, announced Friday.

The appeals court sided against Travis Johnson, who told the higher court he shouldn’t have to pay $1,200 in court costs assessed as part of his sentencing in 2017.

Unlike many other decisions by the appeals court, the Johnson decision was for publication, which means it will become part of the overall body of law in the state and can be cited by attorneys and judges in determining the outcome of other cases.

Johnson was represented before the appeals court by the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office. That office has taken on similar cases to challenge a rule enabling courts to charge defendants for the costs of running offices and handling paperwork.

In 2017, Johnson pleaded guilty to aggravated domestic violence in Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court. He was sentenced to 13 months in prison and was assessed $600 in court costs for each of two court files.

Johnson’s attorney argued against the law that gives judges the right to assess court costs, saying it incentivizes them to convict defendants because convictions generate money for the courts.

The appeals court disagreed.

In Alpena County, criminal defendants who plead or are found guilty are now charged $700 in court costs, in addition to other fees and fines. That amount doesn’t cover the actual expense of processing a case, according to Alpena County Clerk Bonnie Friedrichs.

Appeals court judge Douglas Shapiro disagreed with the Court of Appeals’ opinion in Johnson’s case. In his dissent, also for publication, Shapiro likened court costs to a tax imposed on residents who could be arrested if they don’t follow the tax collector’s orders.

According to Shapiro, the Michigan District Judges Association said the rule creates a conflict of interest for judges because not keeping a flow of money coming into the courts could jeopardize their chance of being reelected.

A July 2019 Michigan Supreme Court ruling upheld local courts’ right to ask defendants to pay court costs after they were challenged as an illegal tax.

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