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Does Michigan Impose Unconstitutional Fees On Criminal Defendants?

State Supreme Court to rule on fees in criminal cases

The Michigan Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next week in a case that could decide whether imposing certain court costs on individuals found guilty of crimes is constitutional.

In the case, People v. Shawn Loveto Cameron Jr., the defendant claims that the court costs he was ordered to pay were not authorized by the Legislature. This means that the court violated the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branch.

Cameron’s attorney argues that the costs amounted to a tax, rather than a fee. But the judicial branch does not have the authority on its own to impose such a levy. Rather, only the Legislature does.

In the June 2014 case of People v. Cunningham, the Michigan Supreme Court decided that courts could apply costs to those found guilty of a crime if the costs are expressly authorized by the Legislature. In October of the same year, state lawmakers amended the law to allow courts to impose costs that are “reasonably related” to certain costs of prosecution. (A 2017 law extended the sunset on those provisions to 2020.) Cameron’s attorney argues that the change allowed courts to retroactively impose costs that were not expressly authorized by the Legislature.

Cameron was found guilty of assault charges in 2014 and ordered to pay $1,611 in court costs in addition to serving time in jail. He challenged the sentence of court costs to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which ruled against him. The Michigan Supreme Court decided to hear the case.

“The legal issues go to whether the cost is categorized as a fee or a tax and, if it is a tax, whether it is an unconstitutional tax,” Kahryn Riley, director of criminal justice reform at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said.

“A fee must be voluntary, proportionate and not for the purpose of generating revenue,” Riley added. “Assigning costs to a criminal defendant seems to fail each of these three criteria. Costs aren’t voluntary because the defendant isn’t asking to be prosecuted for his own benefit. They’re not proportionate because defendants pay the same amount of money regardless of whether their trial took a full jury two weeks, or never saw the inside of a courtroom. And costs do seem to generate revenue for the courts.”

According to The Oakland Press, Michigan’s courts have collected $38 million statewide from individuals found guilty of crimes. Riley said that in 2015 and 2016, circuit courts charged defendants in about 33,000 cases. But they collected in just 24 percent of those cases in 2015 and 33 percent of them in 2016. District courts collected in 70 percent of cases in 2015 and 85 percent in 2016.

In addition to questioning the practice on legal founds, Riley criticized the practice as bad public policy, as did the District Judges Association.

“Saddling defendants with criminal justice debt is bad for public safety because it is discoverable on background checks, making it difficult to find employment and harder to get back on track,” Riley said. “This can create a vicious cycle of reoffending and incarceration that creates massive social and financial costs.”

In an amicus brief, the District Judges Association said that the practice provides incentives for judges to find defendants guilty in order to collect revenue.

“Because the statute only affords the courts a portion of revenue if the court convicts a defendant, the court will have a direct incentive to find as many defendants guilty as possible,” the brief states. “This will be the only way for judges to alleviate the relentless pressure they are under from their municipalities to raise more revenue."

The case is scheduled for oral arguments on Nov. 19.