Court costs -- cops

There is no justice. At least there isn't for police departments beholden to the Sandusky Municipal Court.
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

 

There is no justice.

At least there isn't for police departments beholden to the Sandusky Municipal Court.

The average citizen assumes that the police departments make "buckets of money" from traffic citations and that the departments are "flush with cash." But that is not the case, not by a long shot.

The municipal court's 21-page 2006 annual report is designed to dazzle spectators. It lists in great detail the number of cases that were filed in court during the year (16,628) and the funds collected by the court ($3,442,380.05).

But the distribution of those funds is a complex state of affairs, and sorting out the whys and the wherefores is almost the same as finding your way through a maze while blindfolded.

There are seven separate divisions of the municipal court. They include the criminal division, bond division, civil division, small claims division, trustee division, landlord/tenant division and probation division.

Each division, according to the annual report, generates income in amounts that range from $2,485 (landlord/tenant division) to $1.3 million (civil division). But, the information is deceiving for those who assume law enforcement agencies benefit from the money.

The criminal division of the municipal court generated $1,282,150.25 in 2006.

And, of that amount, more income went toward sustaining the court than to local law enforcement agencies.

The sad truth is that the Perkins Township Police Department received only $53,713 in 2006 from fines levied in municipal court. The sum does not even cover the cost of salary and benefits for one police officer.

The Sandusky Police Department fared a tad bit better than Perkins. The department received $70,536 from municipal court, which barely covers salary and benefits for one officer.

Although some folks might think that's a good thing, because police departments shouldn't be preying on traffic offenders to generate income, most people realize police departments are essential for the safety and well-being of people in all communities.

Police officers frequently express frustration with the way cases are adjudicated in the criminal division of Sandusky Municipal Court.

At the same time, court officials express frustration with Ohio for forcing the court to become a collection agency for legislator-dictated special causes.

And, while police officers believe their departments should be able to help fund their operations through fines, some lawyers think that's a novel idea, because they believe the funds collected through municipal court should primarily go toward funding the court.

To say this issue is a turf battle is an understatement. It is complicated by the fact that frequently, when Municipal Court Judge Erich O'Brien decides cases, his decisions perpetuate the concept of paying for the court, but not law enforcement.

An individual who appears in municipal court for a criminal division offense (which includes traffic citations) quickly learns there are two categories to the fee which must be paid. There are court costs and the fines.

In muni court, the court cost for each charge is $70. The fine for the offense is determined by statute. The judge has discretion in determining the amount to be paid for either category.

Judge O'Brien rarely waves the court costs; after all, this is the money that funds his operation. But the reverse is true for the fines levied for the citations issued by police officers. Frequently Judge O'Brien waves the fine; sometimes he charges a minimal amount, and on occasion decides a person can afford the fine and should pay the maximum.

It appears from reviewing police department records that the only things consistent about the disposition of cases in municipal court are the inconsistencies.

Recently Judge O'Brien said he knows his image is that of a "limp-wristed pubic defender" (the position he held before becoming a judge), but that his decisions are based on defendants' incomes. He explained that for a person who is pulled over for speeding on his way to work at a minimum wage job, it is more important for him to be able to pay rent or car insurance than to pay a traffic fine.

What happened to the concept that we are all equal before the law, or "If you can't pay the fine, don't do the crime"?

And although Judge O'Brien may be guilty to erring of the liberal side of a defendant's case, there is still plenty of blame to go around. The state has found several ways to pad its budget thanks to the work of local law enforcement agents.

Heck, even the Erie County Bar Association benefits. Half of all fine money goes to fund the local law library -- but that's a story for another day.