Michigan's High Court Limits The Fees Billed To Defendants

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that local courts cannot charge indiscriminate fees to defendants.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block. Michigan's top court, today, moved to put limits on what local governments can charge defendants who go through the court system. The court ruled in a case we told you about last month of a man who got billed more than a thousand dollars for his court costs. NPR's Joseph Shapiro, who reported the series of stories we called Guilty And Charged, has this update.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The Michigan Supreme Court said, today, that the county where Frederick Cunningham went to court erred when it handed him a bill. Cunningham forged a prescription to get painkiller drugs. Along with prison time, he was billed $1,200, including $500 for the cost of operating the courts - for the heat, the phones, the security, even to help pay for the county employees' fitness gym. Anne Yantus works for Michigan State Appellate Defenders Office and represented Cunningham in his challenge to the fees.

ANNE YANTUS: The opinion appears to say that court operating expenses are not an authorized cost unless a statute expressly allows these operating expenses.

SHAPIRO: But it's been common for local courts to charge these fees, from small Allegan County, where Cunningham went to court, to Wayne County, which includes Detroit.

YANTUS: This has broad application, because the the trial judges in virtually every county in Michigan were assessing cost in criminal cases. In Wayne County, for example, they regularly assess $600 in cost, and they can't do that anymore.

SHAPIRO: In our story last month, Michael Day, the administrator for the Allegan County Circuit Court, explained that it was reasonable to charge defendants, because they're users of court services.

MICHAEL DAY: They don't necessarily see themselves as customer, because obviously they aren't choosing to be there, but, in reality, they are.

SHAPIRO: The official was out of the office today and unavailable for comment. A spokesman for Michigan's state court administrator said, the state supreme court decision speaks for itself, and declined comment further. NPR's series found it's common practice, not just a Michigan, but in states across the country to charge fees to defendants. And sometimes, NPR found, when people don't pay those fees, they get sent to jail. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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