by Ed Lyon
U.S. jurisprudence generally strives to avoid conflicting interests and even the appearance of impropriety. This practice apparently does not apply to the system of mayor’s courts in Ohio. Reminiscent of ancient Star Chamber of England, Ohio mayor’s court proceedings have no court reporters or even recorders present. In this manner, they are able to operate in open secrecy in order to avoid scrutiny.
However, this is, after all, the United States of America. So, unlike Star Chambers, defendants in Ohio’s mayor’s courts are allowed to be present while their cases involving traffic and local ordinance violations are decided … sort of.
The American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) of Ohio observed defendants in Newburgh Heights, North Olmsted, Parma Heights, Lockland, Highland Heights, Mt. Orab, and Reading being coerced and pressured by prosecuting attorneys and magistrates to plead guilty to charges even after the defendants protested and attempted to plead innocent.
Kind of like the old Star Chamber proceedings.
Mayors recruit municipal employees like police officers and magistrates or justices of the peace. Some mayors even preside in their mayor’s courts to hear and pass judgment on cases that provide revenue for their municipality through guilty findings. This is a textbook example of conflicting interests and judicial impropriety.
ACLU of Ohio investigations of mayor’s courts in 2015 found the above-mentioned North Olmsted mayor’s court collected a total of $1,300,000 that year. Mayor’s court cops in 51 municipalities issued 168.8 misdemeanor citations each on average for that year.
Fine payments are coerced in these courts by magistrates threatening defendants with arrest and jail time for failure to comply. Nine of these courts of coercion issued 8,232 arrest warrants in 2016. Eight of the nine suspended 1,912 driver’s licenses.
With apologies to William Shakespeare, concerning Ohio’s mayor’s courts, “Extortion by any other name is still extortion.”
ACLU of Ohio is urging that all mayor’s court proceedings be recorded, with the publication of the defendant’s demographic information and publication of case outcomes. In addition, these courts should be funded by state taxes instead of revenues they themselves generate. Finally, these courts’ discretion should be limited to the point that they are unable to arrest and jail defendants or divest them of their driver’s licenses when the accused cannot pay their fines.
It was noted that people of color and low-income areas were the hardest hit by mayor’s courts. Faced with dire consequences that far outstrip those of people who can afford to pay their fines, a disproportionate number of these disadvantaged populations are routinely hit with compounding fines, increasing legal sanctions, arrests with jail time, and the loss of their driver’s licenses.
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