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Michigan Supreme Court Holds Imposition Of Court Costs Against Defendant Is Not Unconstitutional Tax

by | Jul 18, 2019 | Criminal Procedure |

Michigan supreme court holds imposition of court costs against defendant is not unconstitutional tax

On July 10th, 2019, the Michigan Supreme Court denied an application for leave to appeal a decision of the Michigan Court of Appeals (People v Cameron, __ Mich App __;__ NW2d __ (2017)(Docket No. 330876)) that held the imposition of court costs against a defendant at sentencing is not an unconstitutional tax.

Effective October 17th, 2014 and expiring October 17th, 2020 (unless extended by the Michigan Legislature), MCL 791.1k(b)(iii) allows the trial court to impose at sentencing “any costs reasonably related to the actual costs incurred by the trial court without separately calculating those costs involved in the particular case, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • (A) Salaries and benefits for relevant court personnel.
  • (B) Goods and services necessary for the operation of the court.
  • (C) Necessary expenses for the operation and maintenance of court buildings and facilities.

The Defendant was convicted by a jury of assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder (MCL 750.84) for attacking a woman over the dispute of babysitting fees. In addition to receiving a prison sentence and a fine, the Defendant was ordered to pay court costs totalling $1,611.00. The Defendant appealed the issue of court costs, arguing that the trial court lack the statutory authority to impose them since the conviction occurred before the statutory amendment. The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed but remanded the case back to the trial court for a determination whether the court costs imposed were “reasonably related to actual costs incurred by the trial court.” The trial court, on remand, assessed the same $1,611.00 with an explanation on how it arrived at the numbers. The Defendant once again appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The Defendant argued to the second panel that the court cost assessment in MCL 769.1k constitutes a tax because it both raises revenue and it is assessed involuntarily against criminal defendants. It is not a fee because criminal defendants are not being provided a service when prosecuted in a court of law. This “tax” is unconstitutional, states the Defendant, because the statute doesn’t distinctly state the amount of the tax and there is no limit on how much cost can be imposed.

In deciding whether the charge is a fee or a tax, the court must consider three questions:

  • (1) Does The Charge Serve a Regulatory Purpose Or Does It Operate As Means To Raise Revenue? – MCL 769.1k(1)(B)(iii) expressly allows the trial court to impose costs for the “actual costs incurred by the trial court.” The Michigan Court of Appeals determined that, “[b]ecause “the state, including its local subdivisions, is responsible for costs associated with arresting, processing, and adjudicating individuals” who commit criminal offenses, the classification scheme imposing costs on criminal defendants but not civil litigants is “rationally related to the legitimate governmental purpose of generating revenue from individuals who impose costs on the government and society.” Therefore, it is a revenue raising statute.
  • (2) Is The Charge Proportionate To The Necessary Costs Of The Service To Which It Is Related? – The Michigan Court of Appeals finds that the costs under MCL 769.1k(b)(iii) are ‘not “proportionate to the service rendered” because any service rendered from the trial court’s role in the prosecution of defendant benefits primarily the public, not defendant.’ The “service” of being prosecuted or convicted clearly does not benefit the criminal defendant.
  • (3) Does Payor Have The Ability To Refuse Or Limit Its Use Of The Service To Which the Charge IS Related? – The Michigan Court of Appeals finds “[i]t is clear that a criminal defendant has no power to ‘pass’ on his or her prosecution and avoid the underlying costs. Even if a defendant chooses to plead and forego a trial, costs are incurred and assessed.”

Under this analysis, MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) functions as a tax as it “was an effort by the Legislature to allow trial courts to impose costs on a convicted defendant in amounts reflecting the court’s actual operational costs in connection with criminal cases.” However, the statute “does not expressly state that it imposes a tax, and “the statute is neither obscure nor deceitful” in its purpose. Since “the trial court must establish a factual basis for its assessment of costs to ensure that the costs imposed are reasonably related to those incurred by the court in cases of the same nature, the legislative delegation to the trial court to impose and collect the tax contains sufficient guidance and parameters such that it does not run afoul of the separation of powers”. Therefore, the Court of Appeals found the assessment of court costs constitutional.

Since the Michigan Supreme Court refuses to address the matter, the decision of the Court of Appeals will stand.

Whether a conviction arises from a guilty plea, no-contest plea, or a guilty verdict after trial, judges can impose court costs at sentencing. This is particularly problematic for indigent defendants when the payment of costs becomes a condition of probation or parole. Failure to pay these costs according to a court-imposed payment schedule or before the end of probation can cause a violation leading to jail or prison. This assessment increases the chances that a poor individual will face incarceration for the same criminal conduct as a wealthier person because they cannot “buy” their way out of trouble. As long as this statute is in force, this will always be a danger for an indigent person facing the system.

To avoid these court costs, it is important to have an experienced defense attorney in your corner that can advise you to take a course of action that can minimize or eliminate these assessments whether your case results in a plea to a lesser charge, a dismissal or even an acquittal at trial. It is simply too expensive to settle for anything less. If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges and need legal representation, do not hesitate to contact the skilled lawyers at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC today.

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