Tickets' price hike might be limited by county commission

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Speeding tickets now cost more here because of a decision by the county government last week, but it's not necessarily forever and its application might be modified.

Marshall County commissioners are to "revisit the fees" in three months to see if other counties in this Judicial District increased court costs for speeding tickets, other moving violations, and crimes.

That's how Commissioner Mickey King, chairman of the Commission's Budget Committee, put it when suggesting an amendment to the recommended increase. The changes were approved on two 12-5 votes.

The decisions last week grant Donna Hargrove -- the public defender elected in Marshall, Bedford, Lincoln and Moore counties -- an additional $12.50 per case. Hargrove requested the additional fee during a Budget Committee meeting on Jan. 21 when she reported that the $12.50 fee is already charged in other judicial districts.

Here's how it works.

About eight years ago, state lawmakers passed a bill that was signed into law by the governor. The law authorizes county commissions to adopt a $12.50 indigent defense cost fee for misdemeanors and felonies. Non-moving traffic violations, such as a broken taillight, are exempt from the fee. Adoption requires a two-thirds majority vote by the commission.

The resolution (adopted on Jan. 26 by a 12-5 vote) imposes the additional user fee to defray the cost of legal representation for defendants who can't pay for a lawyer, according to county records.

When defendants appear before a judge, they're asked if they have an attorney and they're advised that if they can't afford one, then one will be provided. Typically, the attorney provided is from the Public Defender's Office.

An individual who can't afford to hire an attorney is asked to complete an affidavit of indigence, declaring their income, possessions, relations and other aspects of their lives that indicate ability to pay for legal representation, or the lack thereof.

Gov. Phil Bredesen's announcement about state budget problems prompted Hargrove to approach the Budget Committee, explaining that she has offices in Lewisburg, Shelbyville and Fayetteville with secretaries, assistant public defenders and investigators to serve indigent defendants.

Depending on the cutbacks in state funding for public defenders statewide, Hargrove said, office costs might have to be cut. Layoffs are posible and it could mean that assistant public defenders would be "working out of their cars" and interviewing defendants and witnesses in public places such as the courthouse steps, restaurants and other such places, Hargrove told the Budget Committee.

At that Jan. 21 committee meeting, commissioners concluded that they have control over implementing the $12.50 fee and ending its use, and that apparently led to King's amendment to the resolution to start charging the fee.

One aspect of the fee's implementation is its application to costs incurred by Hargrove's office in other counties, according to discussion among the Marshall County commissioners. Hargrove has said that if she has to close any of her three offices, it won't be the one on First Avenue North near the Marshall County Jail.

"If every other county does not pass it, we can come back and say, 'Just for Marshall County,'" King told the commission as he called for the amendment.

It's to prevent fees collected in Marshall County from being spent in other counties.

Discussion among commissioners included questions on how much speeding tickets cost now. The sheriff's chief deputy, Billy Lamb, explained there are different levels and they depend on speed and other factors.

The cost was $97.50 "the last time I paid," Commission Chairwoman Mary Ann Neill said. Another commissioner said his daughter's ticket was $150.

Voting against the amendment and the resolution to add the $12.50 user fee were Commissioners Billy Spivey, Seth Warf, Dean Delk, Scottie Poarch and E.W. Hill.

The fee applies to Lewisburg City Court and the Marshall County General Sessions and Circuit courts because the state law specifies that the $12.50 is to be collected by "the clerk of every court having jurisdiction of state misdemeanors and felonies..." That excludes Chapel Hill City Court because it only deals with traffic offenses. People arrested on misdemeanor and felony charges in Chapel Hill are taken to the county courthouse. That's also true of Petersburg and Cornersville.