Gretchen Schuldt
Court Watch

Municipal Judges Ignore the Law

Audios show poor defendants aren't informed of right to community service rather than fines and jail.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Nov 1st, 2016 01:09 pm
City of Milwaukee Municipal Court.

City of Milwaukee Municipal Court.

It’s pretty simple.

State law says this about what Municipal Court judges are supposed to say when they pass sentence:

The court may defer payment of any judgment or provide for installment payments. At the time that the judgment is rendered, 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.

State statute 814.29(1)(d) says that a person is considered poor if he or she receives means-tested public assistance, including medical assistance, supplemental security income, food stamps or veterans benefits; if the person is represented by a lawyer through a legal services program for the indigent; or if the person is otherwise unable, because of poverty, to pay the costs involved in the case.

Do Milwaukee Municipal Court judges ask about poverty? Do they orally inform defendants that if they can’t afford to pay they may request community service?

Let’s listen to Presiding Judge Phillip Chavez sentence a man on two illegal parking charges. Listen closely for the oral notice about informing the court if the defendant can’t afford to pay.

Chavez does not give the legally mandated notice.

We don’t mean to single out Judge Chavez. Judge Joann Eiring was hearing cases as a reserve judge when she drew the operating while intoxicated trial of trial of Johnny Holland, who started off by saying he did not understand that he was supposed to have witnesses there that day. The judge found Mr. Holland guilty of the charge, but not guilty of refusing to submit to testing for intoxicants.

Eiring fined Holland $861 and suspended his driver’s license for seven months. The audio is not good enough to post here, but here is what she said:

“I’m going to give you 90 days to pay the $861. If you can’t pay it all in 90 days, come back (and) ask for more time. If you ask for more time, we’ll work with you. If you don’t ask for more time and don’t pay it, the alternative is jail time.”

Nothing about poverty, nothing about potential alternatives.

Another judge not following the law.

These are not cherry-picked cases. We requested two months of audio for each of the three Municipal Court branches. The judges’ sentencing comments in all the cases will be posted either in audio or in writing, depending on audio quality. We also have requested a third month of audio, and plan to request more. Maybe the judges will change their habits.

Maybe the Common Council will approve budget amendments to hire a lawyer and citizens’ advocate to represent or assist indigent defendants in Municipal Court. Those people could remind the Municipal Court judges that the public is watching what they do and that they must follow the law.

For our final audio, here is Reserve Judge Patrick Moszynski, fining a defendant named Naomi Frith $100 after she admitted stomping her foot on the floor as a message to the people living below her. Moszynski not only failed to give the mandated poverty explanation or even tell her of the consequences for non-payment, he got tangled up in explaining Frith’s appeal rights. Give a listen.

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.”

15 thoughts on “Court Watch: Municipal Judges Ignore the Law”

  1. AG says:

    The judges are required to notify the defendant either orally or in writing. Is anything given in writing to defendants? If so, no problem. If not, then there’s a problem..

  2. PMD says:

    I’d say these fines are a problem too. $100 for stomping a foot? Is that really true? I had loud neighbors on the east side and in Bay View during my college years and in my 20s, and I did stuff like that. I can’t wrap my head around that kind of penalty for stomping a foot on the floor. That’s insane if true.

  3. AG says:

    It’s hard to make an assumption based on the info here. I’d imagine there’s more to it than one incident of stomping on their floor.

  4. PMD says:

    I don’t think so AG. The audio says the charge was excessive noise. She admitted to stomping her foot when aggravated. Why in the hell was she charged in the first place? That’s completely outrageous. If that’s all one needs to do in order to be fined $100, every adult on the planet would be facing fines on a daily basis.

  5. AG says:

    The audio starts at the point when the judge is ready to rule, he recounts that she gave testimony, and the judge mentions that the city met it’s burden of proof “in at least this incident” (indicating there’s more charges and more going on here) and he did have one other question that “wasn’t relevant at the time” which also indicates other incidents going on.

    No, nothing here tells me this is an isolated case of a woman stomping on her floor.

  6. PMD says:

    He directly ties the $100 fine to stomping her foot. But of course the Status Quo Defender doesn’t see it that way. If there are other charges, that’s an entirely different matter with a different punishment. Separate incidents, separate charges. But this is specifically $100 for stomping a foot. I bet you’ve yelled at some teenagers and told them to turn the music down at least five times this week.

  7. AG says:

    PMD, come on… after hearing that you don’t think there’s more to the story?

    I’d love to have them release full audio of that case… barring that, we can look at ccap when the case gets updated online.

  8. AG: the article quotes the law as: “In addition, the court shall inform the defendant, orally AND in writing…” not orally OR in writing as you suggested. That is a significant difference.

  9. AG says:

    You’re right Ed, the article quotes it as saying “and” instead of “or.” Unfortunately they quoted it wrong. the law specifically states “or.”

  10. AG: Actually the article is quoting the law correctly:

    (1g) The court may defer payment of any judgment or provide for installment payments. At the time that the judgment is rendered, the court shall inform the defendant, orally and in writing…

  11. AG says:

    Well this is what happens when the writer doesn’t cite their source. Under 800.035(2)(a)4 it says orally or in writing.

  12. Sorry AG. That seems to relate to first appearance and not sentencing. And maybe that’s something that our grand legislature could do…standardize the language in the statutes.

  13. Ted Chisholm says:

    The Municipal Court must do more to accommodate indigent defendants. On at least one occasion that I know of, a Circuit Court judge overturned a Municipal Court sentence that did not allow an indigent defendant to perform community service instead of a fine. The details of this article are concerning. As the three municipal judges are each conscientious public servants, I hope they will act quickly to right this injustice.

  14. Gretchen says:

    Hi — Thanks for the interest in this story. First, I didn’t post the whole audio because of its length. Basically, the complainant said the noises from the upstairs apartment had occurred on previous occasions, and the defendant denied it. There was no corroborating evidence, and the prosecutor did not ask the officer who wrote the ticket about previous calls for service to that address. The defendant said she stomped on the floor one that one occasion because her neighbors were doing drugs and smoke was rising into her apartment from the neighbors’ place while the defendant’s two young nieces were visiting her. The ticket was written because of the single occurrence. The officer testified he did not hear the noise, and wrote the ticket based on what the complainant said.

    Next — there is nothing in the record to indicate the court provided the defendant with the required written notification. We checked the file. After the trial, Municipal Court provided the defendant with a “Defendant Notice” that broke down the total amount –$100– the defendant owed. It showed $33 for the court clerk fee, a $25.08 forfeiture, a $10 jail assessment fee, a $5 state clerk fee, a $13 state crime lab assessment, a $6.52 state surcharge and $7.40 in witness fees. And then it said “If you do not pay the total amount due on or before 05/06/16:
    -You may be ordered to serve 2 days in jail.”

    On April 22, the court sent a “Notice of Arrest and Collection Action,” even though the fine was not due until May 6. The notice told her that if she did not pay up or return to court by the deadline, “A warrant may be issued for your arrest, so that you may be brought before the Judge or required to sign a personal recognizance bond for a future court date;” “A commitment may be issued for your incarceration in the House of Corrections or County Jail;” and/or “The debt will be sent to a collection agency, which will be authorized to seek wage garnishment and intercept income tax refunds you may be due.”

    She paid in full on May 6.

  15. PMD says:

    Thank you Gretchen. AG is “I told you so” appropriate here?

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