Ohio’s Mayor’s Courts Increase Injustice Across the State

Karen G.’s daughter still remembers the day when “mommy had her pink bracelets on.” Unfortunately, Karen was wearing pink handcuffs, not bracelets.

On May 10, 2010, the day of Karen’s youngest daughter’s birthday, Karen and her daughters were on their way to pick up a birthday cake. They stopped by Lockland Mayor’s Court to present documentation that Karen had renewed her driver’s license. But once she arrived at the court, Karen was told that she had to pay a $600 fine for driving without a license before she could leave. When Karen explained that she did not have the money to pay this fine, a Lockland police officer handcuffed her to a wall in front of her daughters and gave her one hour to make phone calls to come up with $600.    

In 2010, Karen’s family income was $30,000 for a family of four. Karen was unemployed and her husband was on the verge of a lay off so her family could not afford to pay $600 on the spot. Karen's husband picked up her children and Karen was put in a police vehicle in front of her children. When Karen began to cry, the police officer taking her to jail told Karen, “You’re a big girl, stop crying.”

Unfortunately, Karen’s experience is a widespread problem in Ohio. Every day, Ohioans are arrested and thrown in jail via mayor’s courts, a shadowy quasi-judicial system that wrings revenue from drivers.

Mayor’s courts are falling short because their personnel do not have adequate legal training, and they lack the accountability and transparency necessary to function fairly. And the problem is a big one —there are almost 300 mayor’s courts operating across Ohio.

The ACLU of Ohio has been investigating mayor’s courts since August of 2017. We found evidence of systematic misconduct by police and courts in mayor’s court municipalities. Though mayor’s courts adjudicate minor violations, some mayor’s courts make huge profits. Police in 51 mayor’s courts municipalities issued an average of 168.8 citations each in 2016. This was 4 times greater than the average number of citations issued by police elsewhere in Ohio. The mayor’s court in North Olmsted, a suburb of Cleveland, collected over $1.3 million dollars that year.

Mayor’s courts can be turned into profit-centers because a mayor can instruct the municipal police to issue traffic citations and then adjudicate these offenses in court to collect court costs and fines. Profit-oriented mayor’s courts are not furthering justice in Ohio; they are subverting it.

Low-income communities and communities of color are the hardest hit by mayor’s courts.

People who can’t pay their tickets are subjected to compounding fines and escalating legal sanctions including driver’s license suspensions, arrests, and jail sentences. These consequences far exceed the consequences for people who are well-off enough to pay their initial citations, making monetary sanctions inherently unfair to poorer people.

Our investigation found that Black people were at higher risk of getting citations than white people in inner-ring suburbs--suburbs that share a geographic border with their city--of Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Akron.

The negative impacts of revenue-oriented policing is compounded by the focus on revenue generation in mayor’s courts.

Magistrates in profit-oriented mayor’s courts use the threat and reality of arrest and jail time and driver’s license suspensions to compel the payment of fines. In 2016, a mere nine courts issued 8,232 arrest warrants. Eight of these nine courts issued 1912 driver’s license forfeitures.  

Revenue-oriented mayor’s courts also use subtler forms of coercion to collect fines and court costs. In Newburgh Heights, North Olmsted, Parma Heights, Lockland, Highland Heights, Mt. Orab, and Reading mayor’s courts, we observed magistrates and prosecutors pressure people into guilty or no contest pleas even when defendants initially stated that they were not guilty. Because mayor’s courts proceedings are not recorded, they can keep these coercive practices secret and protect themselves from scrutiny.

To fight the injustices of mayor’s courts, we must purge revenue-oriented decision-making from our courts by funding courts through state taxes. Mayors should never have judicial power, and they should not appoint magistrates; the potential for abuse of power is too great and has severe consequences for Ohioans. Courts should be transparent and accountable to the public. This includes recording court proceedings, demographic data of defendants, and outcomes. Lastly, the power of these courts must be limited so that they cannot arrest and jail people or take away their ability to drive legally because of unpaid fines.

Everyone in our society relies on our courts to uphold laws, enforce contracts, mediate disputes, and remedy injustices. We must reform mayor’s courts so that they can deliver justice to all rather than revenue to some.

View comments (15)
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Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

One of the reasons that Americans are against Muslims coming to America is because some Muslims believe that they should live under Sharia Law. We have all the laws and all the courts we need in this country. We don't need any more. If someone wants to wear a jihad on their head and live under Sharia Law they can move to Sucky Arabia.

Judge Roy Bean

How is this comment relevant to this story?

Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

What's it to you, Mr. Bean?

Critch

How do you feel about the Christian laws we already have on the books?

Ca Dozo

I have seen no evidence of Sharia law, what I do see is anti-science pseudo-Christians passing legislation to restrict women's rights to make their own health decisions. Those so-called "Christians" need to keep their religion to themselves.

Jerry Eaton

Do we have any sources for this information? If so could you please post them in the article. Thank you.

Scott Bothe

Women drives under suspension and doesn’t pay her fine. Ok I summed up the story for you.

Anonymous

Almost. If one ads that seems like this also happen everyday in Municipal and County courts across Ohio, then you've got

Anonymous

Almost. If one ads that scenes like this also happen everyday in Municipal and County courts across Ohio, then you've got it.

Taking away people's Liberty for non-payment of fines and costs is indeed an important issue not only in Ohio but Nationwide. However, absolutely none of that has anything to do with the existence of Mayors courts.

Anonymous

I am and Ohio criminal defense attorney, lapsed ACLU member - - only because I keep forgetting to fill out the form - - and previously worked several years as a prosecutor and magistrate in multiple mayor's courts. As someone who spends is there an entire career on the front lines of defending the accused, let me succinctly respond to the ACL use suggestion to do away with Mayor's Courts.

No. No no no no no, please no.

First , something that both this and previous ACLU reports regarding Mayor's quartz completely and shamefully fails to mention is the following. Any decision made by a mayor's court, EVEN IF THE DEFENDANT PLEADS GUILTY, can be automatically transferred to the local Municipal Court for a brand new hearing merely by filing a one-sentence notice of appeal with the mayor's court within 10 days thereafter. In short, mayor's courts offer defendants a free bite at the Apple to get a favorable resolution.

Secondly, while Mayors courts can be more difficult to get a favorable contested result out of due to the unavailability of jury trials, they still serve a very good function for defendants. As I always say, a mayor's court may not be the best place to contested matter, but it is frequently a good place to work out a plea deal. I'm representing a young woman with a first-offense OVI right now who is very very lucky she was cited into the mayor's court her case is pending in, because the judges in the County Municipal Court downtown are absolutely merciless. And for those cases that need to be contested, again, a Mayor's Court gives you a free bite at the apple, and a free do over in Municipal Court if you choose, regardless of whether a mayor's court magistrate found you guilty at trial or you plead guilty.

Third, the comments made by the ACLU regarding disproportionately affecting the poor and people of color is no different than the court system in general. There is no evidence whatsoever that Mayors courts are more discriminatory against poor and people of color then Municipal and other courts. What this report dresses is an overarching problem with the judicial system and inequities in law enforcement, for which the existence of Mayor's Court does not exacerbate. Does the ACLU truly want to argue that appearing in Mayor's Court in a small majority minority Community before an African-American mayor is worse for a definitive color than having their case heard in Municipal Court where 90% of the judges are white? Again, this is a real issue, but one which is unrelated to mayor's courts.

4th, if one gets rid of Mayors courts then that's only going to create more inconvenience for defendants. Meaning of Mayors courts defendants are relatively local to that Community or close to it. Getting rid of Mayors courts would force these defendants to drive downtown to their local Municipal Court, deal with the cost and time of Downtown parking, and also deal with a greater case backlog due to mayor's courts no longer taking many cases out of the system. Needless expenses for gas, parking, and time away from work do not help the poor or people of color.

Bears courts are not perfect. I strongly agree that they should be recorded, and frankly many of them are regardless of not being a requirement. Nevertheless, on behalf of someone still respect what the ACLU stands and fights for, speaking as someone who is in the front line trenches every single day fighting for criminal defendants in Ohio, I implore, May beg you, do not take away our mayor's courts. Doing so would be the prime example of the law of unintended bad consequences.

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