The statute that permits Michigan trial courts to impose court costs on convicted criminal defendants is not unconstitutional on its face, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.
The defendant in People v Johnson (Docket No. 351308) pleaded guilty and no contest to several crimes. At the defendant’s sentencing, the Alpena County Circuit Court imposed $1,200 in court costs on the defendant.
The defendant appealed, arguing that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) – the statute addressing court costs in criminal cases – deprives defendants of their due process right to an impartial decisionmaker and violates separation of powers principles. The defendant also contended the statute “encroaches on the judiciary’s impartiality by creating financial incentives and pressure for judges to ensure that criminal defendants are convicted and assessed court costs so as to fund the trial courts.”
The Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s arguments in a 2-1 published opinion.
“While we leave open the question whether a successful as-applied challenge could be made under certain presenting circumstances, in answer to the only legal questions squarely before us, we disagree that the statute is facially unconstitutional,” Judge Jane M. Beckering wrote, joined by Judge David H. Sawyer.
Judge Douglas B. Shapiro dissented. “’Court costs’ assessed only from convicted defendants are fines. Because they are not authorized by the statute defining the relevant crime, I would conclude that they may not be imposed. For these reasons, I respectfully dissent and would hold that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) is unconstitutional.”
On appeal, the defendant challenged the constitutionality of MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii). This statute permits Michigan trial courts to impose on convicted defendants those court costs that are “reasonably related” to the actual costs incurred in processing the case.
MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) has come under scrutiny in the past several years, not only in court decisions but also by task forces and organizations seeking to ensure the judicial system operates fairly and equitably, “especially for our most economically vulnerable citizens, and with respect to potential pressures placed on judges by local court funding sources,” the Court of Appeals observed.
Here, the defendant raised a facial challenge to the statute. “Defendant does not argue that the trial judge in his case acted impartially when deciding to impose court costs under MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii),” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Rather, the thrust of his argument is that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) operates in the state of Michigan to deprive all criminal defendants of their due-process right to appear before an impartial decisionmaker because the statute incentivizes all judges to convict criminal defendants and impose court costs to raise revenue for the courts.”
Specifically, the defendant maintained that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) “encroaches on the judiciary’s impartiality by creating financial incentives and pressure for judges to ensure that criminal defendants are convicted and assessed court costs so as to fund the trial courts,” the Court of Appeals explained. “Defendant contends that, under this funding scheme, ‘[t]he more money the judge orders the defendant to pay the more money she will generate for the county, and ultimately, for the court where she presides.’”
Addressing the defendant’s arguments, the Court of Appeals looked to People v Alexander for guidance. “To the extent defendant suggests that a trial court’s discretion to impose costs under MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) is unconstrained, he is mistaken,” the Court of Appeals said. “As this Court explained in Alexander: [A] trial court does not have unfettered discretion with respect to the amount of costs to impose under this provision because the costs imposed must be ‘reasonably related to the actual costs incurred by the trial court without separately calculating those costs involved in the particular case,’ … and there must be a factual basis demonstrating that the imposed costs are reasonably related to the costs incurred by the trial court …. Hence, contrary to defendant’s argument, MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) does not provide the trial court with the authority to increase the costs imposed on criminal defendants as a means for generating more revenue.”
Further, the defendant did not present evidence to support his assertion that there is a “direct correspondence” between court costs imposed and money received by the trial courts, the Court of Appeals said. In making this argument, the defendant pointed to Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack’s concurring remarks in People v Cameron, another case that addressed the constitutionality of the court costs statute. Cameron was appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court after the Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii). Appellate attorney Liisa Speaker represented the Michigan District Judges Association (MDJA) and authored its amicus brief in the Cameron case. The MDJA contended that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) violates the 14th Amendment and submitted letters providing anecdotal evidence of the pressure that some trial judges faced to ensure their courts were well funded. The Michigan Supreme Court ultimately denied leave to appeal in Cameron. In the order denying leave, the Chief Justice presented various “concerns” she had with the statute.
Referring to Cameron, the Court of Appeals observed, “Opining that the MDJA might be right, Chief Justice McCormack stated: ‘No matter how neutral and detached a judge may be, the burden of taxing criminal defendants to finance the operations of his court, coupled with the intense pressures from local funding units (and perhaps even from the electorate), could create at least the appearance of impropriety. Assigning judges to play tax collector erodes confidence in the judiciary and may seriously jeopardize a defendant’s right to a neutral and detached magistrate.’”
The defendant claimed the Chief Justice’s comments in Cameron emphasized the stress put on trial judges to generate revenue by assessing court costs – and this violates the right of criminal defendants to an impartial judge.
But the Court of Appeals disagreed, noting the letters the Chief Justice referenced in Cameron were not part of the record in the present case. “Even if they were, they would not affect the outcome of this case,” the Court of Appeals said. “While we agree that use of the funds generated pursuant to MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) to finance the operations of the sentencing judge’s court, coupled with intense pressure placed on that court by its local funding unit, could create at a minimum an appearance of impropriety, anecdotal evidence from a few judges fails to establish that ‘no set of circumstances exists under which [MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii)] would be valid. The fact that the … [statute] might operate unconstitutionally under some conceivable set of circumstances is insufficient.’ … Rather, such pressure calls into question the conduct of the local funding units, as MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii), on its face, does not address how the funds are to be utilized.”
The Court of Appeals concluded by rejecting the defendant’s separation of powers argument, ruling it was not established the Legislature “has made it impossible for trial courts to fulfill their constitutional mandates or that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) is facially unconstitutional.”
Judge Shapiro dissented, saying he would find MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) unconstitutional.
“This ‘tax’ case becomes much clearer once we set aside the fact that all the ‘taxpayers’ are convicts,” Shapiro observed. If these assessments were really a tax, he explained, then they would be applied to all litigants – or at least to all non-prevailing litigants and not just convicted defendants.
“There is no rational basis to apply the fees only to convicted defendants other than the fact that, having broken the law, they may be punished,” Shapiro wrote. “And as persons convicted of a crime, they have little, if any, standing in the political process and public opinion and so can be forced to pay extraordinary sums to the government compelled under the threat of further incarceration. In other words, they are a group of people whose protests against these ‘taxes’ are unlikely to be heard, let alone addressed.”
According to Shapiro, a system “that funds a branch of government by taking, under threat of additional incarceration, large sums from persons convicted of crimes, many, if not most, of whom are indigent and wholly without political influence, deserves such ‘close’ judicial scrutiny. I agree with the majority that legislative action would be welcome and is needed. But it is the judiciary that demands, collects and uses the funds obtained. And it is the judiciary that determines whether or not the statute is constitutional.”