By Benjamin Gohs
A June Michigan Supreme Court ruling will annually cost lower courts—including those in Charlevoix County—millions of dollars collectively.
House Bill 5785 was recently introduced to reinstate the ability of courts to levy certain fees against defendants but the change has already cost the courts of Michigan’s 83 counties as they work to process the nearly three million cases seen statewide each year.
“I think the impact on us is quite minimal because we only assess general court costs on defendants … and the average amount is $350,” said Charlevoix County 33rd Circuit Judge Richard M. Pajtas. “So, we’re out some money but not a great deal.”
Pajtas estimated that his court has lost a couple thousand dollars over the last couple months.
“We’re not a revenue-producing court like district courts are,” he said. “Most of our defendants are felons and indigent and don’t have any money. It’s not like the traffic and drunk driving offenses where they are hit hard financially.”
Pajtas said an interesting development arising out of the high court’s decision is that some state prisoners are asking to be reimbursed for extra fees they were assessed by courts who were acting without statutory authority.
Introduced last week, Hb 5785 is a bill to amend 1927 pa 175 and, if passed, would allow for collection of any reasonable cost in addition to any other cost authorized including, but not limited to, salaries and benefits for relevant court personnel, goods and services necessary for the operation of the court, necessary expenses for the operation and maintenance of court buildings and facilities.
The bill would also direct courts to make available to the general public and defendants information about any fine, cost or assessment, including an explanation of any cost imposed; though, explanations would not need to include the calculation of the costs involved in a particular case.
Charlevoix County 90th District Judge James Erhart did not respond by press time due to a busy trial schedule but his Emmet County Court Administrator Lisa Smith said court officials and county commissioners are watching the legislature very closely.
“We’re hoping for change and really hopeful that it will happen soon,” said Smith. “We’re hoping it will have no long-term effect but, if it does, at that point we will have to make some long-term decisions.”
Smith was unsure of how much revenue the local courts had lost since the supreme court’s decision.
A county like Grand Traverse stands to lose nearly a half-million-dollars per year.
The supreme court ruling came after Frederick Cunningham pleaded guilty in a case dealing with fraudulent medication prescriptions. He was ordered to pay a flat fee of $1,000 which he later contested, claiming that the court costs assessed were not specific to his case.
The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that, “MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(ii) does not provide courts with the independent authority to impose costs upon criminal defendants. Rather, it gives courts the authority to impose only those costs that the Legislature has separately authorized by statute. Therefore, the circuit court erred when it relied on MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(ii) as independent authority to impose $1,000 in court costs, and the Court of Appeals erred as well by affirming the imposition of such costs.”
Following is a brief list of counties and the amount of money they would lose if the problem is not fixed.
Van Buren $710,000
St. Joseph $500,000
*Circuit court costs only
#District court costs only