Goldwater Institute report: City courts levy fines at taxpayer expense

PHOENIX – City courts in Arizona have a conflict of interest that costs taxpayers, according to a Goldwater Institute report that says municipal judges are motivated to levy fines and fees to keep courts operating.

The research group examined revenue and expenses for 12 municipal courts and found Tempe, Scottsdale and Paradise Valley levied fines in 2016 that far outstripped expenses.

In Tempe, “for every $1 expended on court operations, the court collected $2.56 in fines and fees,” says the report, which relied on a Tempe city budget document.

Goldwater and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona called for reforms, including shifting the system for choosing city judges from city councils to voters. They also proposed combining city courts with county courts and stopping the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for failing to show up to court.

People who can’t afford to pay fines can get into serious financial trouble as fees pile up on unpaid fines, said Alessandra Soler, executive director of Arizona’s ACLU.

“What (we) wanted to do was shed light on these revenue generating practices and how it ends up violating people’s due process rights,” Soler said.

City courts handle traffic citations, small claims, noise complaints and other city ordinance violations. Fines and fees add up, Goldwater leaders said at a news conference Tuesday.

The report highlights “seemingly minor” infractions such as smoking in a non-smoking area or not cutting tall weeds in a yard. One case began with a resident violating a Mesa ordinance that prohibits spitting on the ground, said Goldwater’s Mark Flatten, who researched and wrote the report.

Judges, appointed by city councils, can be pressured to issue fines, said Timothy Sandefur, vice president of litigation for Goldwater.

Soler said the system “creates a distorted incentive for the courts to generate fees in order to fund their own budgets. This distorts the criminal justice system.”

Scottsdale officials said judges usually have nothing to do with fines. They don’t even see most traffic cases because police officers issue tickets.

“Most people that get civil traffic tickets just pay online or go to defensive driving school,” Scottsdale officials said.

“We’re just a very efficient system,” she said of the difference between revenue and expenses. Scottsdale had nearly $7.8 million in revenue, compared to $4.7 million in expenses during the 2014-15 fiscal year, according to the Goldwater report.

Officials for Tempe and Paradise Valley, which the report says collected $3 for every $1 in expenses, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

“The biggest money maker for city courts is traffic citations,” Flatten said. “They’re making sure that if you get a traffic ticket, you’re going to pay that fine. If you don’t pay that fine we’re going to suspend your license.”

Goldwater and ACLU recommended five court reforms:

– Consolidate city courts into the county Superior Court system to cut down on the potential for municipal judge bias. Voters decide whether to retain Superior Court judges in office.

– Make municipal court judges answerable to the voters. “We need to eliminate the pressure that city court judges feel knowing that they are beholden to other city officials, to the mayor, to other city councilman,” Sandefur said at the news conference. “By eliminating the threat of removal we help to insulate judges from those kinds of self interested pressures.”

– Have the state fund city courts rather than have fines and fees support operations. A system that generates revenue is risky because it creates a government with a built-in conflict of interest, Sandefur said.

– End the practice of suspending a driver’s license or arresting someone for who doesn’t make their scheduled court appearance. Taking away people’s legal ability to drive only hurts them more. “This leaves them helpless,” Sandefur said.

– Limit city government’s power over courts and provide for stronger appeal rights. Criminal matters that can be backed by jail sentences are too important to be handled by Arizona’s city court system, according to the report.