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.