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Crusading against court fees

This is important work.

Jani Maselli Wood

Houston attorney Jani Maselli Wood scanned the itemized list of “court costs” that people pay when they get in trouble with Texas law to see how much her indigent client owed even while sitting in a prison cell.

Among other things her client was obligated to pay was a $250 DNA record fee, money that was divided to fund the state highway system and an account that issues criminal justice grants.

Maselli didn’t think the fee was a legitimate court cost, and relying in part on a 70-year-old case, Maselli convinced Houston’s 1st Court of Appeals that it was a tax collected by the judiciary. Attorneys for the state appealed that ruling and she is now scheduled to argue the issue before the highest court in Texas.

The defense attorney’s attempts to hold the state accountable for the money collected as “court costs” may sound quixotic, but the courts are taking her challenges seriously.

It could change the way Texas collects money and pays the bills.

“I’m trying to make sure the money goes to where you think it goes,” Maselli said. “If you look behind the court costs, statutorily, where the money goes, it rarely goes back to the courts.”

The courts have defined “court costs” as a recoupment of the cost of criminal prosecution. Maselli is arguing against fees that sound like they are connected to criminal cases, but which she says are not.

One of the fees charged to defendants after trial is a 14-item bundle called the Consolidated Court Cost.

Maselli has followed the money for each of the fees in that bundle to find they support things like the state highway fund, a criminal justice institute at Sam Houston State University or end up in biggest pot of all, the state’s general revenue fund.

“Only a small amount, like 12 percent, goes to the courts,” Maselli said. “It’s just not connected.”

The Observer wrote about Ms. Maselli last month. The Chron story doesn’t mention that she’s employed by the Harris County Public Defender’s office, which enables her to do this kind of work since she’s not tied to billable hours. I suspect many people, including myself, assumed that the courts were mostly funded by taxes, not “user fees”. It’s not like the “users” chose to be there, after all. If that’s the route we’re going to go, the least we can do is spell it all out. Kudos to Ms. Maselli for forcing that kind of reckoning on us.

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6 Comments

  1. Brad M. says:

    Impressive effort.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    I’ve got no problems with people convicted of crimes being assessed monetary penalties in addition to or instead of jail time. I do have a problem with those fees going directly to the court system. Why were the people of Ferguson so upset with all the petty traffic tickets written to them? The money from those tickets directly benefited those in the criminal justice system, which leads to a conflict of interest.

    I would much prefer those monetary penalties go directly to the state’s general fund. That way, there is no incentive for those in the criminal justice system to go crazy with overzealous enforcement and punishment. Isn’t that why Texas insisted that the majority of each traffic ticket go to the state vs. going to the city that wrote it?

  3. Steven Houston says:

    In Houston, the majority of each ticket doesn’t go to the state, it goes to the city’s general fund for most offenses. In smaller towns, I believe there are provisions that if the town exceeds a certain percentage of it’s total budget coming from traffic enforcement, every ticket after that number benefits the state more than the city (unless it has changed, this was a big issue years ago).

    But using Ferguson MI as an example proves a point too, the total cost of the court and officers writing those tickets is more than the money the city derives from the tickets. In Ferguson, all fines and fees amount to a whooping 10% or so of the yearly budget, not all of that coming from traffic fines. Not including capital expenses and equipment, the police and courts cost twice the amount they take in from fines so it makes no sense to claim traffic tickets netted either department a penny; neither the courts nor the cops getting a bonus for writing more tickets.

  4. Bill Daniels says:

    @ Steven

    I’ll accept your numbers on Ferguson. Here’s what you aren’t factoring in……Ferguson would have to field a police department and court system regardless of whether they write zero tickets, or an inordinate number, as seems to be the case. By your own figures, half of the PD is self financed by tickets and fines.

    And it is safe to say that writing more tickets leads to more court appearances, which means more overtime for the ticket writer. I’d call that an hourly bonus, vs. a piecework bonus. Remember the 4 HPD officers who were caught listing each other as witnesses on tickets so they could all show up for that overtime money?

    How many occupations can self generate their own overtime pay, pay that is earned in air conditioned comfort, and in the safety of a place where metal detectors are used to disarm citizens?

  5. Steven Houston says:

    Bill, but that’s just it, the city isn’t netting money like crazy, that number including all sorts of fines unrelated to traffic and even including automated systems (3 red light cameras) which account for about a fourth of the fines. While their city manager pushed the police to write more tickets, their overtime budget was almost half what it was three years ago, clearly their department simply adjusts shifts for court (a common practice). To put it in perspective, the whooping $130k a year their city paid officers in total overtime was less than what two of those scammer cops in Houston made.

    I’m a policy wonk of sorts so if something of interest comes up, I go look it up. The FBI report was so slanted as to boggle the mind in terms of how the Justice Department is all but cramming a community policing model down the city’s throat. For those unaware, such a policing system can easily double or triple the amount of officers needed, Houston having found this out after importing Lee Brown in the 80’s. Even as mayor he could not implement it without breaking the bank, eventually allowing his chief of choice, Bradford, to largely dismantle popular programs like DARE, PAL, and a myriad of others for lack of manpower in more critical divisions.

    But honestly, your rant about paying police for attending court in accordance with state law aside, the fact is that despite the assertion, Ferguson is not making money via their court system as suggested. If it were like some of those ticket traps surrounding Austin circa the 70’s and mid 80’s, the kind that financed half the entire city budget or more via ticket revenue, you’d have a point. The interesting thing is how the biggest driver of increases was the colorblind cameras in high accident intersections. They’ve been there since 2011 and locals tend to get used to such devices as they learn to adjust their behaviors, so I suspect the largest source are those who (poorly) travel through the town regardless of what race the driver may be.

    And whether or not Ferguson would have to field a police and court system really isn’t a factor. One of the duties of a police officer is to enforce traffic laws which means writing tickets at times. If the officers were getting gobs of overtime for court, there would no need for the city manager to continually communicate his desire for them to write more tickets and their resulting overtime budget would increase OR the number of officers would greatly increase, neither of which appears to have happened in the last ten years there.

    Bringing it back home, I think Ms. Maselli had a point and hopefully the court will listen. Whatever court fees are charged to someone convicted of a crime should be used as they are designed to be used, not fund otherwise worthwhile projects in what amounts to a tax.

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