Court Watch

Muni Court Indigents Will Get Lawyers

Common Council votes 9-6 to approve funding for new program.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Nov 7th, 2016 03:02 pm
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City of Milwaukee Municipal Court.

City of Milwaukee Municipal Court.

The Common Council on Friday approved funding for a lawyer to represent indigent Municipal Court defendants.

Municipal Court judges routinely fail in their legal obligations to defendants, particularly when it comes to informing them that they can request alternative sentences if they cannot afford to pay the fines.

“People who are indigent or poor have not had fair representation before the court,” said Ald. Michael J. Murphy, who sponsored the measure. “This is a small measure to go toward that.”

Murphy’s amendment will provide $45,000 to contract with an attorney to represent indigent Municipal Court defendants and to supervise third-year law students who also would represent indigent defendants.

Murphy warned the council against looking at Municipal Court, which earns more than $1 million annually in “profit,” as a revenue producer.

Co-sponsor Nik Kovac referred to audio tapes published by Wisconsin Justice Initiative and Urban Milwaukee, of Municipal Court judges failing to tell defendants of their potential right to an alternative sentence. “One of the reasons so many people have warrants out for them….they can’t pay it and they don’t know what to do, and the judges never told them what their rights were, which they’re mandated to do by state law,” he said.

Murphy’s amendment originally lost, 8-7, but Murphy persuaded Ald. Terry Witkowski and Robert Donovan to support it, and the final vote in favor was 9-6. Voting for the measure, besides Murphy and Kovac, were Aldermen Robert Bauman, Jim Bohl, Mark Borkowski, Donovan, Jose Perez, Witkowski and Tony Zielinski. Opposing it were aldermen Milele Coggs, Ashanti Hamilton, Cavalier Johnson, Chantia Lewis, Khalif Rainey, and Russell Stamper II.

A quick recap of the legally mandated notices that Milwaukee Municipal Court judges are required to give defendants at judgment:

…the court shall inform the defendant, orally and in writing, of the date by which restitution and the payment of the forfeiture, plus costs, fees, and surcharges imposed…must be made, and of the possible consequences of failure to do so in timely fashion, including imprisonment…or suspension of the defendant’s motor vehicle operating privilege…if applicable. In addition, the court shall inform the defendant, orally and in writing, that the defendant should notify the court if he or she is unable to pay the judgment because of poverty, as that term is used in s. 814.29 (1) (d), and that he or she may request community service in lieu of payment of the judgment.

But Milwaukee Municipal Court judges do not take the law entirely seriously, at least as it applies to them. 

As the prior story revealed, Presiding Judge Phillip Chavez was heard speaking in two audios. In the first, he doesn’t come anywhere close to fulfilling his obligation. In the second, he does come close, but doesn’t quite get there — there is no mention of community service, for example. Representation by a lawyer, Murphy and Kovac have suggested, could assure that judges do give defendants proper notice of their rights.

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

2 thoughts on “Court Watch: Muni Court Indigents Will Get Lawyers”

  1. Tim says:

    Can anyone shed light on why the 6 common council members opposed this?

  2. Gretchen says:

    The only thing I heard was an objection to the funding source — the money came from an unfilled Common Council staff position.

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