Court Watch

City Could Get Tougher on Defendants

Municipal Court already makes a profit but plan would toughen debt collections, hold cars, attach wages.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Oct 24th, 2016 09:23 am
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City of Milwaukee Municipal Court.

City of Milwaukee Municipal Court.

Despite Municipal Court’s success as a money maker for the City of Milwaukee — it raked in $14.4 million in profit over the last five years — city officials are considering several steps to increase citation payments and revenue.

Municipal Court generated $14.4 million in profit over the last five years, records show, but the city’s Outstanding Debt Work Group says there was a cumulative $40.5 million in Municipal Court outstanding receivables last year. In contrast, there was about $50 million in outstanding taxes and $34 million in outstanding parking citations.

Municipal Court profit.

Municipal Court profit.

The recommendations from the work group would expand the city’s powers to force debtors to pay delinquent citations, but makes no recommendations to protect the rights of defendants. The city already funds police to write tickets, attorneys to prosecute Municipal Court cases, and a collection agency to collect overdue citations.

Defendants, however, are on their own and are not provided lawyers, even when they are facing incarceration. Municipal Court judges, who are supposed to hold indigency hearings to determine a defendant’s ability to pay fines, often do not, court observations and audio of proceedings show. There is evidence that Municipal Court enforcement falls heaviest on those in the poorest city neighborhoods, where police presence — and subsequent ticket writing — is at higher levels.

One of the work group’s recommendations seems to be self-defeating. The group is recommending the city attorney’s office explore the possibility of requiring payment of all past-due citations before an individual’s vehicle is released from the city tow lot. That would, of course, make it much more difficult for the defendant to get to or look for the job needed to pay the fine.

The group also is recommending the city explore “using wage attachments to collect delinquent debt” and that it begin a “friendly debt-collection program.”

The work group’s final report is to be considered Monday (Oct. 24) by the Common Council’s Judiciary and Legislation Committee.

The group wants the Common Council to adopt an ordinance to allow immobilizing of illegally-parked vehicles  “as a potentially more effective method of attaining parking compliance than towing” and is recommending the city lobby the state for a law allowing vehicle immobilization — “booting” — to tow or boot any vehicle with three or more parking tickets. Currently, only illegally parked cars can be booted.

Public shaming is on the agenda, too. The work group is recommending that the Police Department “conduct a media campaign and online publication of the top 100 most egregious offenders for outstanding debts and warrants,” according to group’s final report.

The recommendations come in the wake of city actions that already show that officials are looking to Municipal Court to generate funds for the cash-strapped city. The Common Council last year adopted — and Mayor Barrett signed — a resolution favoring adoption of state law that would allow the city to use a Municipal Court surcharge to pay for police body cameras. The measure’s backers made clear the move was purely monetary and had nothing really to do with city ordinance violations.

And the proposed Common Council’s Public Safety Action Plan, which has come under fire from a variety of community groups and residents, says the city could pay for some of its recommendations by writing 30,000 more tickets per year to people who call 911 for non-emergencies or non-existent situations. That could raise about $1.5 million, assuming all those cited pay their fines, according to the plan. In reality, the city would likely have to write 50,000 or 60,000 additional tickets to raise $1.5 million in fines because many people do not or cannot pay their fines.

City budget figures show that Municipal Court caseloads and revenue are down, but revenue is dropping at a much slower rate. The number of Municipal Court cases dropped 48% from 2011 through 2015, but revenue dropped just 20%.

​In the five-year period from 2011 through 2015, Municipal Court realized $31.1 million in revenue, mostly through forfeitures, while costing $16.7 million to operate, for a “profit” of $14.4 million.

Gretchen Schuldt writes a blog for Wisconsin Justice Initiative, whose mission is “​To improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and ​encouraging civic engagement in and debate ​about the judicial system and its operation.”

Categories: Court Watch, Politics

11 thoughts on “Court Watch: City Could Get Tougher on Defendants”

  1. steenwyr says:

    Despite Municipal Court’s success as a money maker for the City of Milwaukee — it raked in $14.4 million in profit over the last five years — city officials are considering several steps to increase citation payments and revenue. … There is evidence that Municipal Court enforcement falls heaviest on those in the poorest city neighborhoods, where police presence — and subsequent ticket writing — is at higher levels.

    Ferguson, MO in the making?

    The city already funds police to write tickets…

    Aren’t parking tickets handled by DPW? Yes, they use it as a revenue source too.

  2. Chad James says:

    What about just enforcing the rules already in effect further or shoring up current practices further?

    I was hit by an uninsured motorist and they received a slap on the wrist and drove away… I ended up having to pay my deductible and the person who totaled my car wound up dealing with next to nothing. At minimum their car should have been impounded and sold, if they could not come up with the funds to pay for the damages they caused.

  3. Casey says:

    Chad- you could sue them…..The attorney would take his fee from the settlement, the settlement would be adjusted to account for this.

  4. Chad James says:

    Yes I sure could, but what amount of time would I spend suing someone who is obviously broke and can barely speak English. Just a sad situation all around and not worth my time to make more of a mess of.

    Reality, the law should do their job more vigorously.

  5. PMD says:

    What does their ability to speak English have to do with the situation? That’s a pretty asinine comment.

  6. Chad James says:

    I knew I’d get a snarky comment regarding inability to speak English. The reason I stated that is obviously the persons inability to speak English only compounds an already tough situation for them, thus the reason taking time to sue is not the best remedy for the situation and why I didn’t take that course of action.

    That is all I meant so don’t read into it to much.But eh this is America where every little thing is scrutinized to a fault. Eesh.

  7. AG says:

    Chad, I thought for sure you were going to imply they were an illegal immigrant. That in and unto itself would not be an unreasonable position to take when discussing why suing would not be feasible. Generally speaking, if they’re illegal they’d be working for cash or under an assumed social security number. Their assets would be difficult to track, at best, and likely would be hard to track them down for damages and/or other recourse. Not to mention, how can you take away a license (or just charge points) when they don’t have one to begin with.

    That is all solely based on them being an illegal immigrant though… and just because someone doesn’t’ speak English, doesn’t mean they’re in the country illegally.

  8. PMD says:

    You felt it was worth pointing out their lack of English speaking skills but didn’t make it clear why that was an issue, so it was hardly an unreasonable question Chad.

  9. Chad James says:

    So I take it I’m in the clear now and justified in my observation of the difficulties for a person having trouble speaking English? Also kudos for not making a tough situation worse for this person? We already live in a sue happy country. I am lucky enough to have been able to deal with the damage they caused.

  10. PMD says:

    My car was broken into by some teenagers who will never be caught in September, and getting the window replaced was really expensive, so I kind of know how you feel.

  11. Chad James says:

    It’s no fun losing money like that. It happens though…

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