DETROIT — The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments about whether court costs ordered by local judges are an illegal tax against those convicted of crimes.
It’s a question worth tens of millions of dollars in courts up and down the state.
Under Michigan law, anyone convicted of a crime can be ordered to pay for a portion of a court’s operating expenses. The state Supreme Court said Friday that it is looking at the case of Shawn Cameron, who was told to pay $1,611 in Washtenaw County on top of other fees after an assault conviction.
The case comes at a critical time. A state commission has until the fall of 2019 to come up with recommendations about long-term ways to fund the court system. That work could be influenced by a decision by the state’s top court.
Critics say court costs are an illegal tax because the amounts are determined by local courts, not the Legislature. They also say it puts a disproportionate burden on poor people who commit crimes.
In Cameron’s case, the state appeals court agreed with the tax label but said the law is constitutional.
In 2016, courts statewide collected $38 million, much of it in Michigan’s District Courts, which handle misdemeanors. Berrien County’s 5th District Court collected $1 million, trailing only Oakland County’s 52nd District Court at $2.3 million, according to reports filed with the State Court Administrative Office.
Circuit Courts, which handle felonies, also order court costs.
“This is an issue of significant importance to the state. … Criminal defendants are not a special class of citizens who must bear the expenses of government by means of a higher tax imposed on them alone,” said Cameron’s lawyer, Marilena David-Martin.
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