Sandusky municipal court judge reviews his own policies

Judge Erich O’Brien said the person the Ohio ACLU has criticized for tossing poor people into jail doesn’t sound much like the guy he sees in the mirror.
Tom Jackson
Apr 18, 2013

“Pretty much half the courts in the state are doing pretty much what we are doing,” O’Brien said. “I sleep nights. We always try to treat people fairly.”

O’Brien said he rarely orders jail sentences for defendants who haven’t paid fines.

“I can’t remember the last time I did that,” he said.

He and court clerk Peggy Rice always work with people who have trouble paying their fines, O’Brien said. 

Still, the ACLU may have a point in objecting to the arrest of people who haven’t paid fines, even if these people seldom stay long in jail, O’Brien said. 

He has since halted these types of arrests and is now taking a hard look at his policies. 

O’Brien’s name popped up in the news earlier this month, after the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union called a press conference in Cleveland, alleging several local courts in Ohio — including municipal courts in Sandusky and Norwalk — operate “debtors’ prisons” by putting poor people in jail without regard for the law.

Before anyone can be jailed for failure to pay fines, a judge must hold an on-the-record hearing with a defendant’s attorney present, the ACLU has said.

The hearing should determine if the failure to pay was willful, or the person simply didn’t have money.

The computer system used by the court clerks is programmed to spit out the names of convicted defendants who have not made payments toward their fines during a three-month period, O’Brien said. If someone has paid $5 during that period, the name won’t pop up.

O’Brien said he often makes community service available as an alternative to fines, and his door is open to anyone who wants to discuss their struggle to pay fines.

O’Brien said it’s true he has issued arrest warrants for people who owe fines and make no apparent attempt to pay them, but once these people are taken to jail they seldom stay long because there’s no room for them there. If they aren’t released right away, they’re released after a hearing the next day, he said.

The ACLU apparently believes judges should hold a hearing prior to a defendant staying in jail even briefly, O’Brien said, but this simply would not be practical because the court i busy and does not have time for such hearings.

O’Brien has promised the ACLU he will review his policies. A formal response to the allegations should be ready in a few months, perhaps by June.

O’Brien said his court, like most muni courts, is expected to be self-supporting. If jail is taken away as a sanction, the only remaining sanction may be to take away driving privileges — a threat that doesn’t work with everyone.

Another possibility: Turn over unpaid fines to a private collection agency. If defendants won’t pay up when threatened with jail, however, they may not be swayed by warnings about their worsening worsening credit score.  

During the recent press conference, ACLU officials introduced Jack Dawley, a Norwalk resident who described being arrested in May 2012 on a warrant by Perkins police.

Dawley said he was arrested and sent to jail for 10 days without a hearing and without seeing a judge. While in jail, he lost his job and his apartment and he resorted to sleeping on friends’ couches.

Norwalk Municipal Court Judge John Ridge, who retired in December, has been serving as an interim judge for Norwalk since then, pending Gov. John Kasich’s appointment of a successor.

“I’d like to hear John’s version of what happened,” O’Brien said of Dawley’s complaint. 

If Dawley’s version of events is accurate, he has a legitimate grief, O’Brien said. 

“You don’t just throw people in jail for 10 days,” said O’Brien, calling the apparent treatment “unconscionable.”

The Register has asked Ridge to talk about the ACLU’s allegations, and about Dawley’s account, but Ridge has refused. 

Asked about being the target of the ACLU’s criticism, O’Brien said: “I love my job because I never know what’s going to happen from day to day.”

He said usually he’s criticized for not being hard enough on defendants. Referring to the ACLU, he said, “Honestly, I can see where they are coming from on this.”

Comments

lugnut2511

Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Personal attacks (including: name calling, presumption of guilt or guilt by association, insensitivity, or picking fights) and Libel and defamation.

bullydogs1971

I for one am very please with the way Judge O'brien conducts his court room....very fair and honest in my opinion...something lacking these days by those in places of authority.

sandusky2012

he is fair

magiclady

O'Brien is a very fair man and a nice guy. Hes not one just to throw ppl in jail he does have a caring heart and soul. unlike judge ridge who fines u out ur a** and it a ridicolus amount also the Milan judge is the same way they tax ur pockets deep. but not o'brein

happyfeet64

I agree O'Brien has always been fair and is a guy who has a conscience.

yea right

Wow just the thought you know is bad enough. I on the other hand abide by the law. Therefore i have no idea if he is or not

DGMutley

yea right

mikel

rock on judge!!

Kelly

Judge O'Brien is a really nice guy and he's hilarious. He officiated at our wedding.

sab44870

A class act too!

gene44870

what it sounds like to me is that if you are poor you can go out and brake laws that the rest of us abide by and the judges hand are tied cause he can enforce the fines that people agree to pay .
Some how this dont sound right .Maybe it just me .
And not to mention everyone that I know of including me have signed agreements with the courts to pay , and its like the Judge said , if you apply five dollars , you will not be picked up .and its like he said the jail is over what its premitted to have and so he want to save the space for people that comment crimes that require jail holding .

I want to know if the A.C.L.U has any ideas as to how justice can be done if they can not place defendents in jail for non-payments
what good is it going to do for police as well as other law inforcements agencies can not enforce the agreements that everyone that goes through the court agree to pay
I have been keeping up on this matter and the A.C.L.U Says that because of the agreements are not upheld that its not a crimes just cause people are poor . I understand that , and its a shame that this is going on , but the fact of the matter is , if you switch these fines to small claims court and go civil like they {the ACLU } claim how is it going to get these fines paid ? All its going to do is cause the civil courts to be over welmed and in the end , you still arent going to have them paid , as matter of fact , its only going to add to the cost that defendants can not pay to start with .
I dont understand why they would say that thses fines would be civil . it really dont make sense to me , but then that just me and my opionion

sash

It's not a matter of the poor being able to break the law and get by with it, but Judges following the law. There is a big difference in refusing to pay a fine when you have the means to do so and being unable to pay the fine because of poverty. Determining the defendants ability to pay, before jailing them, is the law. The Judges don't get to ignore the law because it is inconvenient for the court. The bigger problem is the court's failure to credit people $50 a day towards their fine when they are jailed. That daily credit is the law and has been completely ignored, at least in the Huron system. Paying the fine AND having to serve time without credit is punishing them twice for the same infraction. For most of the people listed in the ACLU report, the time they served would have more than covered their fines if the law had been followed and they had been given credit for time served. Instead, they leave jail still owing the original fine plus additional costs added that creates a cycle they can't get out of.

Centauri

"The bigger problem is the court's failure to credit people $50 a day towards their fine when they are jailed. That daily credit is the law and has been completely ignored"

Excellent comment. The readers are missing the $50 credit. The law is the law. People can change the laws. I also heard that Eric is a fair judge and a compassionate person. I haven't had time to research this particular $50 credit law. Judges do get their legal questions answered by others and higher ups. Perhaps the judges were given wrong answers or Ohio is using a precedent from earlier court hearings.

There are many "poor" people who have much more money than the middle class. They hide their income because many times, the money was obtained by illegal means like bribes, embezzlement, stealing and selling drugs.
This hidden income could be taxed if there were a spending tax instead of an income tax.

Some states allow the judges to use humiliation sentences instead of jail. I hear that 250 in Erie County, Ohio is very busy. Put the offender out in a clown suit with a big billboard listing his crime. Another option is helping agencies like the humane society and government entities need help by donating time and labor.

TuffNutts2011

I heard ridge is just going to hammer people with jail time off rip and not even give them a fine. lol. This is going to be funny as hell watching people get taken straight to jail from court. Thank you ACLU for the entertainment.

InGodsArmy

I sat in his courtroom the other day. I thought he was very fair, It is crazy the able bodied people, out drinking fighting and causing all kinds of trouble, but when asked, where do you work, uh.....I dont have a job. Get a job for Gods sake. Maybe they wont be in trouble all the time if they actually worked for a living. And one more complaint, On the door going into the courtroom is a big sign, NO CELL PHONES.. Unreal all the people on their phones, phones ringing, One ladies phone rang constantly, Follow the rules people. No wonder there are so many people in court.

SamAdams

I don't care whether you can afford to pay the fine or not. If you don't pay the fine, you should go to jail.

The fine is PUNISHMENT, people! You did something bad, and you pay a fine because you did it. If you did something bad and pay NOTHING, then where's the justice, eh?

The lesson I'm getting from the ACLU: Go ahead. Do whatever. Then plead poverty and it's cool. You know what? It ISN'T.

The Big Dog's back

How about the lesson that it's unconstitutional?

Now The Rest of...

He is a very liberal democrat.

SamAdams

Having read the Constitution, I can't recall where it says that somebody who's found guilty shouldn't be punished. As long as the punishment fits the crime (doesn't violate the 8th Amendment, in other words), punishment is in no way unconstitutional. Unless, of course, you're an uber-liberal and feel sorry for everybody except upstanding and responsible citizens...

Julie R.

Judge O'Brien says in his court they always try to treat people fairly?

I can't speak for O'Brien but I sure can some others. Satan himself would laugh with delight over that and I can even post the matter of public records to prove it.

Julie R.

According to the Ohio Disciplinary Counsel the unethical and dishonest acts of one attorney is a reflection on all attorneys.

Likewise for judges.

dargatz73's picture
dargatz73

I know for a fact that Judge O'Brian is a very compassionate person and cares about everyone , he will give everybody the benefit of a doubt , give numerous chances on paying fines.. i work with people that went to his court and they all say he is very honest and fair.

jas

No one should be arrested on a warrant for failing to pay fines or costs then sit in jail without being brought before a Judge to explain why the money wasn't paid. They should be brought before a Judge the same day or the next day so they can be given the opportunity to explain why they didn't pay what they owed. If the Judge wants to make them sit in jail after hearing their explanation and gives them $50.00 a day credit off what they owe, that's fine. It's suppose to work that way. But to arrest someone on a warrant and let them rot in jail for days withoout being brought before a Judge is illegal and just plain wrong.

Julie R.

I'm surprised there's no Huronites on here singing the praises of Beverly McGookey and Roger Binette.