Lesson from Judge Longo: Most Ticket Money Goes to the State

(Crystal A. Proxmire, The Ferndale 115 News, June 26, 2012)

The idea that cities make money off writing tickets is the biggest misconception Judge Joseph Longo has to face in his work at the 43rd District Court.

“People come in with this attitude like they shouldn’t have to pay because it’s some kind of conspiracy, like the City is just doing this to make money. That’s not the case.  If you look at the way the money gets divided up once we get it, you’ll see that it’s not like that,”  Longo said.

He explained that for every civil infraction– from things like speeding, no turn on red, running red lights, following too close, to other misdemeanors like shoplifting – there are fees that must go to the state, plus the costs of running the court system.  For most of those there is a $40 judgment fee. “If a State Trooper or County Sheriff writes the ticket in the court’s jurisdiction, then the fines go to the County or State and we only get reimbursed for our cost in trying the case,” Longo said.

Misdemeanors like driving on a suspended license, failure to obtain a driver’s license, drunk driving, leaving scene of accident, domestic violence, and assault have higher fines that get passed on to the State. For these the cost is $50 for a judgment fee and $75 for a Crime Victim Act Fee.

The judgment fee goes into the State budget, where it theoretically is used to fund police and courts that are not self-sufficient.  And the Crime Victim Act fee goes into a fund that victims of violent crime can apply for assistance through.  While restitution is an option in court cases, those can be time-consuming and sometimes hard to collect.  The Crime Victims Fund pays for emergency expenses of crime victims, such as emergency medical care for victims of assault or funeral arrangement assistance in murder cases.

Judge Longo explained that he has flexibility in how much to charge defendants, but that if he were to issue a judgment of $100, the extra $25 would come from the court’s coffers. The amount of fees and fines charged is up to the judge, up to the state maximum.

An example would be a ticket that costs the driver $160 in fines.  $125 would go to the State, leaving only $35 for the City.  Often this is not enough to cover the cost of processing a citation, especially if it calls for a hearing before the judge or magistrate, he said.

There are, of course, instances where more may be collected on a citation, but Longo said that when he makes decisions about penalties he’s not looking to get more money, but to make a point.

“Driving with a suspended license is one thing where the circumstances make a difference, and where good judgment comes in,” he said.  “If you are single mom and you’re working the maximum 32 hours they let you at your job at Taco Bell and you’re trying to feed your kids, maybe replacing the muffler on your car isn’t a priority. We see things like this all the time.  Someone gets a ticket for their muffler and they let it go because they can’t get it fixed, they may not realize that their license gets suspended.  Then they get pulled over again and their license gets suspended.  Then they get a driving a suspended license. That’s a different situation than say someone who gets pulled over again and again.

‘There are people who have 30, 40 or even 50 violations who still get in their cars and drive.  Then they get busted here in Ferndale and we are going to be harder on them.  Some of these people have never even gotten a license.  That means they have never taken a driver’s test, and they’re not driving safely.  They are technically the same offense, but the circumstances make a difference.

‘Another example is the drunk driver that repeats. That’s the kind of guy that goes to jail.  That’s where jail becomes a real possibility,” Longo said.

He also explained what ticket money is used for and how it ties into the budget.
“We typically bring in more than we spend.  I’m proud that we are diligent with the money that comes in, and that a little is left over to help the Police do the work they need to,” Longo said.  “But when you think of the cost on a case by case basis, the $35 we might get doesn’t compare to the cost of the police officer writing the ticket, the court clerks to process the paperwork, myself or a magistrate to hear the case, and the collection costs.”

“On top of it, there are always those that don’t pay at all.  Fortunately the $125 doesn’t go to the State until it is collected, but it is set up so that if someone makes partial payments, the State gets their cut first.”

He added that there are behind-the-scenes expenses to running the court.  “We have computer systems that we have to pay for, part of court case management systems, personnel, paper and postage expenses. We do $15,000-$20,000 in mailing, paper expenses. Court appointed attorneys are a big chunk, and there’s a fee to be able to connect to lein, recording system.”

Longo explained that the State has been increasing fees over the past few years.  “The judgment fee started out as $5, but when the State wants to beef up their budgets they up the fees.  It’s an easy sell, make the ‘bad guys’ pay, but when it comes down to it it’s us that has to pay when we get tickets, or when people we know get in trouble.  We all have this idea that the ‘bad guy’ is someone else, so it’s easy to get support for these fees.”

When asked about those drivers who rack up the tickets, Longo said the problem is that some other communities, mainly the City of Detroit, lack the resources to pursue those who don’t, and in many cases can’t or won’t, pay their tickets and fines.  “We get drivers all the time who are shocked that they end up arrested or in court over their citations, because when they get pulled over in other cities they’re always let go.  But in Ferndale we take it seriously,” he said.

“Think about why we give tickets.  It’s not to make money, it’s to keep the roads safe.  If you have a driver with no license or a suspended license, that puts other people’s lives at risk.”

The 43rd Court is actually made up of three courthouses – one each in Ferndale, Hazel Park and Madison Heights. Each has their own budget and works within the community where they are located.

Another common misconception is that parking tickets are a big moneymaker for the city, but the cost of maintaining the city parking lots is kept at bay with the revenue taken in.  In Dec. 2009 City Council also voted to raise the cost of a ticket from $6 to $10, with the additional $4 being put into the parking fund with the intent of starting to save towards a parking deck or other parking solutions as businesses fill the Downtown Ferndale storefronts.  Other expenses include resurfacing and repavement of the lots, and plowing in the winter.  Enforcement of parking meter time limits also means that people are not staying in spots for lengths of time that would deter other visitors.  None of the parking ticket money goes to the court.

Judge Longo has been on the bench since 1998, and prior to that he had 20 years of experience as a lawyer, including working as a prosecutor in Oak Park and Huntington Woods. Outside the courtroom he is active with organizations like Michigan AIDS Coalition, Ferndale Youth Assistance and the Children’s Learning Center.

To find out more about the 43rd District Court, go to www.ferndalecourt.com.