It seems to me that most of us have suffered “sticker shock” — that unpleasant surprise upon learning of an unexpectedly high cost of something. The term used to be associated with the startling price of a car or truck as displayed on a “sticker” affixed to the windshield or side window. Nowadays we can get sticker shock from the cost of a pound of hamburger or bacon. Well, not long ago Doris, a long-time friend, told me she had gotten sticker shock from a different source.
She had been cited for speeding — 37 in a 25 mph zone — and found that she had to pay a fine of $50 plus court costs of $110. Sticker shock. She didn’t expect to pay more than twice the fine in court costs - especially since she didn’t even appear in court. She asked me if I knew why the court costs were so high and what they covered. I pled ignorance, but told her I would try to find out - partly because I became curious and partly because I couldn’t disappoint such a charming lady.
Since I knew nothing about the subject I went to folks who do. Pete Creamer, Clerk of the Xenia Municipal Court, and Ms Diane Bryan, Chief Deputy Clerk, graciously agreed to answer my questions about court costs. Why the municipal court? With the exception of Yellow Springs which has a “mayor’s court” for minor infractions, traffic violations in our county are handled by either the Xenia or the Fairborn municipal court depending on where the citation is issued.
OK, on to the court costs. The term itself is more than a bit misleading because it sounds as if the money goes to the court to support its operations. That is not the case - there are a whole bunch of funds, designated by state or local laws, that have dibs on large chunks of court costs. We old timers recall how “having dibs” meant a claim or the right to take or use something. It’s still a good expression even if it’s not used much any more.
State law, for example, requires specific dollar amounts of the court costs go to the state Reparations Fund, the Drug Law Enforcement Fund, the Indigent Driver Alcohol Treatment Fund, and two Indigent Defense Funds. No ifs, ands, or buts — that money goes to the state. The city of Xenia gets a specified number of dollars for its Capital Improvement Fund and also for the General Fund - and more dollars are allocated for the Victim Witness Fund. The Xenia court itself also has two funds with specified dollar amounts: the Computerization Fund and the Special Projects Fund that pay for computers, copiers, fax machines, scanners, and such not provided by the city.
I imagine the Fairborn court has similar local fund allocations. A minor offense such as speeding less that 20 mph over the limit does not require a court appearance however, a person may choose to explain the circumstances to the judge in an effort to reduce the fine. Regardless, the court costs remain at $110. More serious offenses such as speeding more than 20 mph over the limit do require a court appearance but the basic court costs still remain at $110.
Payment of court costs and the fine can be made with a credit card, money order, bank draft, or a personal check drawn on a local bank by a local resident. A person unable to pay may request a “review” (which costs an additional $50) that may result in a short term arrangement, say 30 days, to make payment. If payment is still not forthcoming, the matter is turned over to a collection agency.
A couple of things have become clear. First, while the judge has some latitude in the amount of the fine, court costs are “firm” with $110 being the basic level.
Second, the court is not self supporting. Despite the common perception that the court must be “rolling in money” from court costs, quite the opposite is true. In fact, the city of Xenia budgets about $300,000 a year for the court’s operation.
Well, I hope this brief summary provides some answers to the questions Doris raised, but, folks, it just scratches the surface of the municipal court’s jurisdiction and operations which are far more extensive than most of us realize. I may try to address this subject later because I think it would be interesting.
In the meantime, this incident reminds us that in this county we have speed limits of 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, 60, 65, and 70 mph with the transition between these not always being clear. Furthermore, we have a number of law enforcement agencies who monitor these limits Although it’s too bad Doris had to go through this experience, we should thank her for being willing to go public. She just may save us from “sticker shock.” At least that’s how it seems to me.
Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at email@example.com.