on November 30, 2016 at 7:00 AM, updated November 30, 2016 at 9:51 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. — You get one ticket, one judge, one court hearing – and so, you’d think, you should have one set of court costs when you pay for that traffic ticket.
In Ohio municipal courts, you can be charged multiple court costs for the same ticket.
If your traffic ticket has more than one offense – say you were charged with having a busted tail light, speeding and failing to wear a seatbelt — Ohio courts can hit you with fees for each of those charges. It’s true even if the court deals with them all at once so it incurs no extra costs.
Some courts don’t do this. Some do. Legal authorities agree it’s confusing and controversial. Yet courts get away with it. Here’s how.
Costs, fees, and the difference:
The amount you pay on top of your fine is known as court costs. But court costs have separate components. One part goes to the state to help pay for lawyers to serve indigent defendants. Another part goes to a state fund to help victims of crime, and so on. The state part is fixed by state law and adds up to $39 for moving violations.
Aside from state fees, the city can charge for costs, partly to offset the expense of running the court but sometimes to help pay the city’s bills. The amount is up to each city or village, but court costs were defined long ago by the Ohio Supreme Court as “fees to which officers, witnesses, jurors, and others are entitled for their services in an action or prosecution.”
If you want to understand these fees and why they are inconsistent, legal authorities say to look to a case involving the Ohio Supreme Court, the city of Middleburg Heights, a man named Vincent Quinones and the Berea Municipal Court.
Quinones in 2005 was charged by Middleburg Heights police with DUI, weaving across marked lanes of traffic, speeding and failure to wear a seatbelt. He pleaded not guilty, and the case went to trial in Berea Municipal Court, which has jurisdiction for Middleburg Heights.
Quinones was convicted. The judge suspended his license, fined him $565, and charged him court costs for each offense. That brought the court costs to $588, or more than the fine.
Quinones appealed, and two of his convictions, for crossing marked lanes and the seatbelt charge, were reversed. The state appeals court also reversed the assessment of four separate sets of court costs on a single ticket.
But Middleburg Heights, backed by the Berea Municipal Court, appealed the reversal of the court costs. So the Ohio Supreme Court took up the question of whether costs from a municipal court should be charged per case or per individual charge within the broader case.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled 6-1 in 2008 that regular court costs — covering the cost of prosecution – could be charged once per case, not per charge. The court allowed that there was some ambiguity in an Ohio statute about what was included in the cost of prosecution. But it said case law helped make clear that this was to be charged per case, not per offense.
That did not end the question, however, because Ohio had, and still has, an entirely different statute, written by Ohio lawmakers, allowing municipal courts to impose “special project fees” for the operation of the court in general.
The statute says a municipal court may determine that funds are necessary, for example, for:
- the acquisition of additional facilities or the rehabilitation of existing facilities.
- the acquisition of equipment.
- the hiring and training of staff, community service programs, mediation or dispute resolution services.
- the employment of magistrates.
- the training and education of judges, acting judges, and magistrates, and other related services.
And for those purposes, a municipal court “may charge a fee, in addition to all other court costs, on the filing of each criminal cause, civil action or proceeding, or judgment by confession.”
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrence O’Donnell noted this wording — “eachcriminal cause, civil action or proceeding or judgment” — in his majority opinion.
Two different state statutes, in other words, made it possible for Ohio to have two different sets of rules — one restricting the multiplication of court costs in each case, the other authorizing the multiplication of special project fees. (You can read the Supreme Court decision at the bottom of this article.) This applies to municipal courts, not mayor’s courts, because of the statutes’ wording.
One law, different realities:
Courts apply these rules differently. In Lake County, for example, Mentor Municipal Court says it only charges once for every cost and fee, regardless of whether multiple charges are on the same ticket.
Yet Willoughby Municipal Court says it multiplies the special project fees, amounting to $20, for each charge.
If you wind up in Painesville Municipal Court, things get more complicated. If you are convicted of everything, you’ll pay special project fees totaling $23 only once — $5 for a capital improvement fund, $10 for a computerization fee and $8 for a special project fund. But if you get some of the charges dismissed, you’ll pay a bit more in fees, because Painesville multiplies the special project fees on each dismissed count.
Over in Vermilion, in Lorain County, there’s an opposite approach: If you come to court, you’ll pay one set of fees, no matter how many charges are on your ticket. But if you waive the ticket beforehand with a guilty plea and simply write a check, you’ll pay extra.
In other words, you’ll pay more in court fees if you don’t go to court.
A different reality:
Where’s the logic in this?
Vermilion views it as a convenience fee: Pay extra to avoid seeing the judge.
Painesville pegs its fees, however, to what happens when you see the judge. Cases that make it that far typically result in a plea bargain, says Painesville Municipal Court Clerk Nicholas Cindric: You’ll agree to plead guilty on one charge in exchange for avoiding a conviction on another. By this point you are taking up the time of a prosecutor or the judge or both. You are using more court resources.
And since it’s a plea bargain, you probably don’t mind the extra fees anyway. You might even be jubilant.
That’s because, as Cleveland attorney Philip Fine points out, you probably avoided a fine on each extra charge. And you probably avoided getting punitive points on your driver’s license, too.
That might keep your insurance rates from rising.
So complain if you want. But from an attorney’s point of view: “They’re giving you a break,” Fine says.