Traverse City Record-Eagle

Michigan

March 30, 2014

Supreme Court to hear dispute over court costs

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DETROIT (AP) — A man who pleaded guilty to a drug crime was sentenced to a year in prison. He also was hit with a $1,000 bill, his share of the cost of having a case in a western Michigan courthouse: legal help, lights, phone, security, even the fitness room used by employees.

"The county fitness center?" asked Anne Yantus, an attorney for Fred Cunningham.

"Correct," replied Allegan County court administrator Mike Day during a 2012 hearing.

Cunningham's tab now has reached the docket of the Michigan Supreme Court, which will hear arguments Thursday to determine whether convicts can be ordered to pay a slice of the court's operating expenses on top of other penalties. Critics say criminals, many with low income, are being unfairly tagged just because they're criminals.

Judges statewide have used their discretion to order local court costs, citing a 2006 law that refers to the ability to impose "any cost." The attorney general's office is defending the practice, saying the Legislature could have restricted the meaning of the law but didn't.

"There are certainly people keeping an eye on this case," Day said in an interview, referring to court officials in other counties.

The State Court Administrative Office in Lansing, which offers guidance, says courts may impose a "reasonable amount" and aren't required to calculate costs for a specific case.

Cunningham's debt was broken down as $500 in court operating costs and $500 for having a court-appointed attorney. The $1,000 bill represented 83 percent of the financial penalties ordered by a judge after he pleaded guilty to obtaining drugs through fraud.

Day said Allegan County uses a sliding scale that is based on the ability to pay. The maximum is $1,000; $500 if a defendant doesn't need a court-appointed lawyer.

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