Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Judge tells his side of traffic fine issue

by John Peterson

November 21, 2013

An explanation letter to the people of the Village of Walworth:

Many of you do not know that the village of Walworth has its own municipal court. The primary function of the court is to adjudicate disputes between the village of Walworth and people who receive citations by the village of Walworth police. Every citation must be adjudicated. Trials are infrequent because most citations are resolved by a guilty or no contest plea, and payment is made. But some are not paid.

In the village of Walworth, about $200,000 remains unpaid. The number changes from day to day depending on citations issued and payments made. Uncollected fines look like a juicy apple to bite into to make a starving budget balance. But it is not as simple as that. The law limits the authority of municipal courts to enforce collection of fines.

Below I explain the law regarding collection. I feel the people of the village of Walworth deserve my time and efforts explaining the law in this area. The people have paid for my judicial seminars. I actually pay attention and learn while at them. So please forgive my detailed explanations, it’s just the lawyer in me.

After a case is adjudicated and a penalty imposed, every person gets 60 days to pay. Most pay. But some do not. After 60 days of nonpayment, and before any additional penalty for failure to pay, every person is entitled by law to a hearing called an indigency hearing. [800.035(2)(d)].

The 14th Amendment, on equal protection grounds bars a court from confining a defendant who is unable to pay due to poverty. State ex rel Pederson v. Blessinger 56 Wis 2d 286 (1972). The courts are required to apply the criteria set out in 814.29 (1)(d) when making poverty determinations. The poverty threshold established by these criteria is very low:

a. Receive any means-tested assistance including but not limited to W-2, SSI, food stamps and veterans benefits

b. Inability to pay due to such circumstances as household size, income, assets and debts

c. Income that is below the Federal Poverty Guidelines

d. Representation by a publicly funded or pro bono attorney

After mailing out a notice of their right to the scheduled indigency hearing, one of four events happen.

First, the person does not show. If they do not show, I can issue a commitment warrant confining them to county jail after the proper findings [800.095(1)(b) 2] for one day for every $50 owed [800.095(1)(b) 1a] so long as proper service has been attained. This is the most common result. $48,593 of the uncollected fines have been issued confinement warrants.

Second, if they do not show, and proper service has not been attained (i.e. mailing of the original citation and no subsequent contact with the court which is rare).

I cannot issue a warrant or suspend drivers privileges. I will issue a service warrant. A service warrant allows a police officer to temporarily detain an individual so a copy of the original citation can be properly served. Then we are back to an initial appearance. None of the uncollected fines have been issued service warrants.

Third, if they do show, I will talk with them about their financial situation. If they have the ability to pay, they pay. Typically they cannot pay all at once, so I will put them on a payment plan. $26,749 of the uncollected fines are on a payment plan.

Fourth, if they do show, I will talk with them about their financial situation. If they don’t have the ability to pay, (see the criteria listed above: W-2, SSI, Food stamps, veterans benefits or receiving any means tested public assistance) I must find them indigent. I must halt any collection practices until their situation changes. So I typically schedule a hearing date in about six months for review. Many people are on public assistance for extended periods of time, sometimes years. $26,102 of the uncollected fines are indigent.

Juveniles have their own set of rules. Juveniles have one year to pay before I can impose any penalty beyond the fine amount, and that is typically limited to a drivers license, hunting license or fishing license suspensions. A juvenile citation never ripens into an adult citation. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, Director of State Courts and Judicial education strongly recommend that juveniles not be incarcerated to a juvenile detention facility for not paying a speeding ticket [938.17(1)(b)] (all other juvenile citations incarceration is strictly prohibited).

I agree with the reasoning and will not issue a warrant for a juvenile for not paying a speeding ticket. $44,841 of the uncollected fines are juvenile fines.

If a citation is less than $99, the maximum I can confine is one day. I often debate if a one day commitment warrant is justified for not paying a municipal fine. I take these case by case. I often issue a warrant, but sometimes I don’t. As of today, $304 of the uncollected fines are less than $99, no warrant but do have a DL suspension.

Citations newer than 90 days have not had their indigency hearing yet.

$32,598.32 of the uncollected fines status is this category.

#3,414 in citations are awaiting trial.

Community Service [800.09(1j)] is often requested as an alternative to payment of a fine. I would like to have a program for these people, but the village of Walworth has not established a program.

The best collection technique for unpaid forfeitures is tax intercept [800.095(6)]. I have a standing order to attempt tax intercept on all fines over $200 and case by case for fines over $20. $16,308 of the uncollected fines status is this category which may duplicate some of the commitment warrants and service warrants as we are gearing up for the 2014 tax intercept.

The village of Walworth could hire a collection agency. [800.095(5)]. I believe the pitfalls far outweigh the benefits. Collection agencies can’t do anything more than what we do except on different letterhead.

The outstanding debt issue exists. The outstanding balance concerns me, too.

All municipal courts face similar collection problems. Some, like ours, face special circumstances that make collecting more difficult, so the percentage of uncollected fines is higher. The number will grow every year.

The court is following all proper collection protocols allowed by the legislature. The law forbids incarcerating a person if they are indigent.

I am hopeful this letter puts to rest the frustrating and complicated issue of uncollected forfeitures.

I invite any concerned citizens to contact me with questions. The municipal court is open to the public, except for juvenile hearings.

If you are interested, please come watch the proceedings. I will be glad to have you with us. Court is usually held at 4:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursday of every month at the village hall.