I have been a practicing attorney since 1994. In that time, the cost of filing a civil lawsuit has gone up over 50%, with the additional costs going to fund the court system.
But far worse has been the exponential rise in court costs that are taxed on criminal defendants. For example, in 1994, a typical Chicago DUI defendant would get a fine in the amount of $200 or $300 plus a $5 “spinal fund fee.” Over the years, additional fees have been added, supposedly to pay for clerks, state’s attorneys, police, emergency services, etc. In 2016, a typical defendant in a Chicago case pays an additional $1,339 in costs, in addition to fines. Since these costs are now so high, they are often not given a “base fine” but still the total fines, fees and costs are over $1,000 more today than they were 20 years ago. That is an increase of 333%.
It is no coincidence that the rise of these fines began after George H.W. Bush was hammered for breaking his “no new taxes” pledge. Ever since, politicians in Illinois have found it much easier to raise additional income through regressive fines and sales taxes (probably the biggest increase over the last 20 years has been on cigarette taxes, even though smokers are addicted to the product and the demographics of smokers tend skew towards low income individuals).
These costs are applied regardless of a person’s income, so that they hit hardest on the poor. Furthermore, the courts are not allowed to waive these costs or allow the defendant to work it off by doing community service.
The Illinois Statutory Court Fee Task Force has issued a report about this growing problem.
In their report they found four key problems:
- The nature and purpose of assessments have changed over time, leading to a byzantine system that attempts to pass an increased share of the cost of court administration onto the parties to court proceedings.
- Court fines and fees are constantly increasing and are outpacing inflation
- There is excessive variation across the state in the amount of assessments for the same type of proceedings.
- The cumulative impact of the assessments imposed on parties to civil lawsuits and defendants in criminal and traffic proceedings imposes severe and disproportionate impacts on low- and moderate-income Illinois residents.
- The Illinois General Assembly should enact a schedule for court assessments that promotes affordability and transparency.
- The General Assembly and the Supreme Court should authorize amendments to the current civil fee waiver statute and related Supreme Court Rule, respectively, to provide financial relief from assessments in civil cases to Illinois residents living in or near poverty.
- The General Assembly should authorize a uniform assessment schedule for criminal and traffic case types that is consistent throughout the state.
- The General Assembly and the Supreme Court should authorize the waiver or reduction of assessments, but not judicial fines, imposed on criminal defendants living in or near poverty.
- The General Assembly and the Supreme Court should modify the process by which fines for minor traffic offenses are calculated under Supreme Court Rule 529.
- The General Assembly should routinely consult a checklist of important considerations before proposing new assessments, and should periodically consult the checklist in reviewing existing assessments.
I hope the legislature gives the Task Force’s report due consideration and implements their suggestions.
From the Chicago Tribune (via the Associated Press):
The Illinois Supreme Court has deemed a four-year pilot program allowing media coverage at certain trials a success and is making the policy permanent.
A spokeswoman for the state’s highest court said Monday the rollout of the program has gone so well that justices decided to end the experimental phase.
Bethany Krajelis said nine of the 24 judicial districts in Illinois that haven’t applied for the cameras-in-court program won’t be forced to join. And strict criteria will remain for when and under what conditions cameras and audio are allowed.
Some observers worried cameras could be disruptive and undermine defendants’ rights. But Krajelis says there have been no such “red flags.”
She says cameras have been permitted in dozens of cases across the state, including in Chicago.
Here is Judge Joseph Hettel’s statement, according to mywebtimes.com:
“I have had the honor and good fortune of serving as circuit judge for the last seven years,” he said. “It is a position that I cherish and a responsibility that I take very seriously. As a judge, I have an ethical responsibility to respect and comply with the law and to conduct myself at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence.
‘My arrest on Money night calls into question my compliance with those ethical obligations. As required under the circumstance, I have contacted the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board and expect that they will begin an investigation.
“I sincerely apologize to the citizens of our judicial circuit, my colleagues on the bench, the lawyers who appear before me, my friends and supporters and, in particular, my family.
“I intend to comment further when my traffic case has concluded. Thank you.”
Judge Hettel will continue to hear civil cases while this matter is pending. However, he has been removed from his rotation along with his fellow judges in Sunday and Holiday bond court, which would include DUI cases.
This weekend, the Daily Herald ran an article stating that Rupam Dave, the Democratic Party Candidate for the open seat of Lake County (IL) Clerk of the Circuit Court, has had three DUI arrests (resulting in two guilty pleas, and one dismissal) from 1993 through 2005. The last DUI occurred during a time that Dave’s driver’s license had been suspended for her second DUI arrest.
According to the article:
Dave said the three DUI arrests were the only times in the past 20 years she consumed alcohol. She said she has never undergone alcohol treatment.
“Those were the only days I have had alcohol since 1993. It isn’t part of our daily or spiritual lives,” she said. “I don’t drink and my family doesn’t consume alcohol. These instances were three distinct situations where something bad was taking place in my life.”
During the first arrest, she was going through a divorce, she said, and she was dealing with a gravely ill family member during the second and third DUI arrests.
“It is something that I regret deeply and something I have personally been working against as a lawyer,” she said. “And, if I’m elected, I would stand up and assist people to try and stop this from happening to them. I would be a spokesman against the issue of drinking and driving.”
This article raises a few questions:
- A DUI that occurs while a person is already suspended for a prior DUI arrest can be charged as a felony offense (Aggravated DUI). Did this happen in Ms. Dave’s case? If not, why? If yes, did she plead guilty to a felony or was her case reduced to a misdemeanor as part of a plea bargain?
- Ms. Dave became an attorney in 1995. Was the 1993 DUI disclosed to the Illinois Supreme Court prior to her admission in regards to her character and fitness to be an attorney? What about the 2005 arrests? Was the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court advised? It appears from the ARDC’s website that she has no history of discipline, but I am curious if any investigation was taken to safeguard the public by ensuring that she did not have an alcohol problem that would render her incapable of fulfilling her responsibilities as an attorney.
- It is a standard in Illinois DUI cases that as a part of sentencing, the defendant is required to undergo mandatory alcohol treatment and education. Furthermore, proof of that treatment is required by the Secretary of State before he will reinstate a convicted drunk driver’s license. So something is wrong when Ms. Dave claims she has never undergone alcohol treatment. Was a special exception made for her on her last DUI? Did the Secretary of State ignore his own rules to reinstate her? Or is she not telling the truth?
- Ms. Dave claims that the only three times that she drank since 1993 were on the three times that she was arrested. While that is certainly possible — she did explain that there were extenuating circumstances that help explain each arrest — it is hard to square with common sense. Government statistics indicate that the average DUI arrestee has driven drunk 80 times without being caught for each time nabbed by police.
- Ms. Dave was not on the primary ballot. The winner, Cynthia Pruim Haran, dropped out and the Democratic Party selected Ms. Dave. Now, it is not unheard of for elected officials to get DUIs. Just this week, a Winnetka trustee was arrested for DUI by Skokie police. And as I blogged last President’s Day, George W. Bush had at least one DUI and Vice President Cheney had two. And Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill managed to save western civilization while drinking prodigious amounts of booze. So a DUI or two is not necessarily a disqualification for holding elective office. I have represented many people who have been able to move on with their lives after a DUI and have successful careers and families. But it seems strange for me for a party to pick someone with such an arrest history to run for an office, without the benefit of the vetting process that primaries provide.
None of this is to say that Ms. Dave can’t be an excellent Clerk of the Circuit Court. But I would like to see the media do a better job of getting answers to these questions before Election Day.