Mass Charges Fee to Challenge Moving Violation — State Supreme Ct Challenge — Indigent Court Costs Statute

That’s right.  In venerable Massachusetts, you have to pay a fee to challenge a traffic ticket (Boston Globe story).

A challenge is now pending in the SJC (Supreme Judicial Court — Docket entries and briefs here).  The statistics appear to support the claim that the fess have reduced the challenge rate (quoted from above Globe story):

For the year beginning July 2009, when a $25 fee was added to appeal a moving violation to a clerk magistrate, 217,197 drivers challenged their tickets — almost 10 percent fewer than the previous fiscal year. During the same period, when they had to pay another $50 to contest a clerk’s decision, 15,466 drivers appealed to a district court judge — almost 35 percent fewer than the previous fiscal year.

Note that you have to pay the first fee to challenge the moving violation, i.e. to get the first neutral determination from a clerk-magistrate, and then another one to appeal that decision to a full judge.

Note also, however, that Massachusetts has a strong Indigent Court Costs statute, Mass General Laws, Chapter 261, Section 27A, et seq., that covers such payments for the indigent.  (The statute bears careful reading by those interested in broader waiver and payment systems.  For example, waivers of fees are presumptive upon affidavit.  “If the affidavit appears regular and complete on its face and indicates that the affiant is indigent, as defined in section twenty-seven A, and requests a waiver, substitution or payment by the commonwealth, of normal fees and costs, the clerk shall grant such request forthwith without hearing and without the necessity of appearance of any party or counsel.” Section 27 C. Moreover, the statute provides for payment by the government of “Extra fees and costs”, “the fees and costs, in addition to those a party is normally required to pay in order to prosecute or defend his case, which result when a party employs or responds to a procedure not necessarily required in the particular type of proceeding in which he is involved. They shall include, but not necessarily be limited to, the cost of transcribing a deposition, expert assistance and appeal bonds and appeal bond premiums.”  Section 27A

This law was drafted and pushed through by one of my first law student supervisors, and ongoing mentors Ernest “Tony” Winsor, who only recently retired from Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, the statewide legal services backup program, and a bulwark for justice (It seems like I spent most of law school there).  While Tony’s work has touched millions, the Indigent Court Costs Statute may be his greatest legacy.

Back to this case:  the idea that the non-indigent have to pay to obtain the initial neutral determination as to the lawfulness of a government claim that the law has been broken sticks in the throat.

It will be interesting if the Court decides the case on technical grounds, uses the opportunity to assert broad access to justice principles, or is swayed by the claim that the courts need the money.

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About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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