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ACLU takes aim at mayor's courts, alleging they care more about profit than promoting public safety

Posted at 6:11 PM, Aug 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-16 18:11:24-04

After compiling data from hundreds of thousands of traffic citations across the state, representatives of the ACLU of Ohio said on Thursday that mayor’s courts are generally more inclined to be in the business of making money instead of promoting public safety. The critiques of the mayor’s court program come after the agency closely examined the courts present in 14 municipalities across the state, including several in Northeast Ohio.

The ACLU’s research included the municipalities of Parma Heights, Newburgh Heights and North Olmsted. The ACLU examined traffic citation data from 2012 through 2013.

In North Olmsted’s case, the mayor’s court program was established in 2013 when it broke away from Rocky River Municipal Court. The ACLU said it examined more than 40,000 traffic citations in North Olmsted.

The ACLU reported finding that 88 percent of all citations issued were issued to people who did not live in North Olmsted. Additionally, the ACLU said that although only two percent of North Olmsted’s citizens are black, 10.6 percent of all citations were issued to black people.

“I think the big takeaway with these courts is that these courts are oriented towards making a profit rather than delivering justice,” said Sri Thakkilapati, a policy researcher for the ACLU of Ohio. “What we’re seeing from the statistics is these are not practices that are oriented to promote public safety. These are practices that are really about making money.”

According to the ACLU, one of every six traffic citations issued in 2016 was issued by a mayor’s court. According to North Olmsted city records, the mayor’s court handled nearly 7,000 traffic citations in 2017, which was down from nearly 10,000 traffic citations issued in 2015.

Each one of these citations provides at least $48 for the city, which doesn’t include a myriad of other fees, fines and court costs. To date, the mayor’s court program has generated more than $1 million for North Olmsted’s coffers. That money is funneled into the city’s general fund, which can be used to pay for a host of different things. North Olmsted Mayor Kevin Kennedy did not return calls or emails for comment.

Because mayor’s courts are not courts of record, there are no transcripts or records of court proceedings. Additionally, the mayor is allowed to hear these cases without having a law degree. There is also very little regulation and oversight pertaining to mayor’s courts.

“It’s a conflict of interest. The mayor is responsible for the municipal budget and is also able to decide court cases through the mayor’s court that directly lead to fines and fees that contribute to the municipal budget,” Thakkilapati said. “With such little oversight, no record of what happens and these courts are so active and show clear evidence of being revenue oriented, I think these additional fines and fees show how they can burden people who can’t afford to pay their fine in the first place.”

Proponents of mayor’s courts said they allow municipalities to offset cuts in state funding. In North Olmsted, the mayor’s court meets once a week in city council chambers. Therefore, there is very little overhead.

“The idea that drivers or everyday people should somehow be supplementing these municipal budgets is really a flawed and dangerous one,” Thakkilapati said.