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Montana Supreme Court: City May Not Impose Local Surcharge Not Authorized by State Law for Violation of State Criminal Statute

by Derek Gilna

Corrine Franklin, who pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in Missoula, Montana, Municipal Court, was assessed a $25 surcharge by the City of Missoula, earmarked for a fund for the City Attorney’s Office. She objected to that surcharge, and on September 11, 2018, the Montana Supreme Court agreed with her position and vacated that additional charge.

Franklin had originally moved to strike the surcharge in Municipal Court, arguing that the city did not have the authority to add that fee to her violation of a state statute, but her motion was denied. The Fourth Judicial District Court also denied her motion, and the matter made its way to the state’s Supreme Court.

The Missoula City Council adopted Resolution 7784 because it believed that the statutory surcharges under state law failed to properly fund the City Attorney’s Office. The surcharge is imposed “as part of the disposition of all citations and complaints, whether under state law or city ordinance….”

“Within the authority granted by statute, trial judges are granted broad discretion to determine the appropriate punishment for offenses,” explained the Court. But, as noted by the Court, a court’s authority in criminal cases “is defined and constrained by statute.” State v. Blackwell, 32 P.3d 771 (Mont. 2001). When a court imposes a sentence for a violation of state law without statutory authority, “the sentence is illegal.”

The issue in this case “is whether a city may add penalties to a [state] criminal sentencing statute,” the Court stated.

Section 46-18-236, MCA, provides for the fees and surcharges that may be imposed by municipal courts and how those funds must be allocated. However, no state statute “authorizes a sentencing court to impose additional surcharges to fund the city attorney’s office,” nor are there any state statutes that permit a court to assess any additional financial obligations other than those in § 46-18-236(1)(a) for a violation of a state statute.

The Court concluded that the $25 surcharge under Resolution 7784 “imposed a greater burden on Franklin than what Montana statutes allow for an offense made criminal by state law.” Therefore, the “Municipal Court exceeded its statutory authority by imposing it.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the portion of the order affirming the surcharge and directed that the case be remanded to the “Municipal Court with instructions to strike” the surcharge imposed pursuant to Resolution 7784.
See: City of Missoula v. Franklin, 2018 MT 218 (2018). 

 

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