Some Cleveland traffic violators wrongfully imprisoned

Mayor blames complicated law department mistake
Posted at 10:13 PM, Apr 05, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-07 16:12:14-04

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson announced Wednesday some people convicted of traffic violations in the city, as far back as last May, got the wrong penalty. As a result, five wrongfully imprisoned county jail inmates got released Wednesday.

In May, 2016, the city’s law department updated some misdemeanor traffic ordinances to match the state code, but neglected to also update the penalties for crimes like driving with a suspended license or passing a school bus. There’s 14 affected ordinances in total. They're listed below.

Those misdemeanors usually carry fines of up to $1,000 and/or six months in jail, but because the city didn’t spell out the penalties, the default kicked in, unbeknownst to municipal court judges.

“If there is no specific penalty for something, then it is a minor misdemeanor,” Cleveland Law Director Barbara Langhenry said.

A minor misdemeanor carries a fine of just $150 and no jail time.

“We believe judges were sentencing people to a higher sentence than the violation warranted,” Langhenry said.

Now, the city’s releasing inmates, issuing refunds and investigating who else might have been affected.

Langhenry said they're also taking steps to reinstate the correct penalties in the city’s code.

Willoughby Hills defense attorney Joseph Hada with Quinn Legal Associates told News 5, mistake or not, the city could be held liable in civil court.

“If that person was subject to consequences at work, they might lose their job,” Hada said. "If they’re on a no-call no-show policy, their job might be gone by the time they get out of jail.”

Mayor Jackson refused to name the five people released on Wednesday. News 5 has submitted a public records request to obtain that information.

The city is asking anyone who might have been affected to call the law department. Hada recommended people speak to a civil rights attorney first.

The affected codes are listed in the attachments below.

Cleveland Code Chapter 403 on Scribd

Cleveland First Degree Traffic Misdemeanor Conversion Issue on Scribd