By Gretchen Schuldt
A pandemic-inspired move to remote hearings in Milwaukee Municipal Court cases has spurred a significant increase in the number of people actually appearing, according to court officials.
"I think this is absolutely going to stay with us," Court Administrator Sheldyn Himle told the Common Council's Finance and Personnel Committee during a budget hearing last week. "We are absolutely hanging on to this."
"They're appearing from home, they're appearing from work, they're showing up," Himle said, referring to defendants.
The court introduced remote hearings by Zoom when the COVID-19 pandemic forced judges to first to shut down their courtrooms, then to strictly limit in-person appearances.
The change has been dramatic, Municipal Court Presiding Judge Derek Mosley said. There has even been a Zoom court appearance from Saudi Arabia, he said.
Before Zoom hearings began, defendants in about 75 of every 100 cases were no-shows and 25 appeared. Since then, it is the opposite, he said. About 25 of every 100 are no-shows, and the rest appear in court.
As far as improving attendance, he said, "This has probably been the greatest thing this court has done since I've been on the bench, and I'm going on 19 years."
The hearings are not streamed for the public and juveniles still must attend their court hearings in person. Mosley said the court cannot guarantee on Zoom the confidentiality the law requires for juvenile hearings.
The proposed Municipal Court budget also eliminates the $50,000 the city has given to Milwaukee Public Schools to support its successful driver's education program. City Budget Manager Dennis Yaccarino said the district could use $50,000 from the money it will realize through its successful referendum. The referendum allows a $57 million increase in the MPS revenue limit for 2020-21.
Yaccarino also said the city would examine the possibility of eliminating one of the three Municipal Court branches in 2023. The number of Municipal Court cases has dropped for several years, and the city will have about 280 fewer police officers to enforce ordinances, said Committee Chairman Ald. Michael Murphy.
The city does not want to eliminate a branch during an incumbent's term, Yaccarino said. Municipal Court Judge Valarie Hill is up for re-election in 2021, but city officials did not act soon enough under state law to cut that branch in the current budget process, Yaccarino said. The next municipal judge elections are in 2023, when both Mosley and Phillip Chavez are on the ballot.
The total proposed Municipal Court budget is $3 million, up slightly from this year's $2.9 million budget.
The Milwaukee Common Council on Tuesday unanimously approved spending $100,000 to fund a lawyer to represent indigent defendants in Municipal Court.
The money will come from the city's federal Community Development Block Grant allocation. The lawyer will be provided through a contract with Legal Action of Wisconsin. The funding proposal was part of a package that was approved without discussion.
A short-term pilot project of the defense lawyer program last year was successful, but the city originally chose not to extend the program in 2020.
The Wisconsin Justice Initiative advocated for the city to fund the pilot project and to restore the defense lawyer position.
"This is great news and a big step toward fairness in Municipal Court," WJI Executive Director Gretchen Schuldt said. "Mayor Barrett and the Common Council deserve a big round of applause for their support."
She noted the city took about two years to prepare a contract for the 2019 pilot.
"That kind of delay can't happen again," she said. "There are tickets issued during the George Floyd protests in the Municipal Court pipeline, some of them questionable. There needs to be a defense lawyer available to help those who need it."
Alderman Michael J. Murphy, the budget amendment that created the pilot program, said he was pleased with the new council vote.
“This program has been exceptional in helping indigent defendants who would otherwise be stymied in their ability to work their cases to a more positive outcome, because of poverty, unpaid citations, or driver’s license issues,” he said.
The city is not legally obligated to provide defense counsel to Municipal Court defendants who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers. That obligation is limited to criminal courts – Municipal Court is considered a civil court and the monetary penalties levied there are considered civil forfeitures.
By Gretchen Schuldt
When all of this is over, the injustice in Milwaukee will continue, sanctioned by the city's elected officials.
Milwaukee will use its police, its judges, and its prosecutors to extract money from protesters and others who come to the attention of police for one reason or another and are erroneously or maliciously ticketed.
The city spends millions of dollars each year for its law enforcement machinery to extract money from residents, but the people who get ticketed are on their own.
Everyone who can't afford to hire a private lawyer is expected to somehow magically know the ins and outs of the local laws they are accused of violating so they can effectively defend themselves or make a case for a lower forfeiture.
They also are expected to somehow – intuition, maybe? Really good guesswork? – understand the complex rules of Municipal Court so they can represent themselves with some degree of competency.
Is there really anyone who doesn't see how absurd this is? And is there anyone who doesn't understand that this, like so many justice system injustices, disproportionately affects African Americans?
The city did have a program last year that provided a defense lawyer for Municipal Court defendants who could not afford to hire their own.
It was a good, smart program that worked. The city shut it down.
That decision belonged to Mayor Barrett and the Common Council. And it will cost those wrongly ticketed during the protests – Lord knows we've seen enough video to know it happened – money they may not have, especially during this pandemic.
It's a travesty, and it happens every day.
It's how city leaders designed it.
By Gretchen Schuldt
A successful Milwaukee program to provide defense lawyers to indigent defendants in Municipal Court is over because the city ended funding for it.
Legal Action of Wisconsin, in the one-year, part-time pilot program, won or negotiated dismissal of 40% of citations issued in cases it defended, according to a report prepared by the agency.
"The system works better if all parties are represented," said Kori Ashley, a Legal Action lawyer who worked on the project.
Now that the program has ended, she said, "we're back to the same old, same old."
The city pays police to issue tickets and the city attorney's office to prosecute cases.
Indigent defendants in Municipal Court, though, are not entitled to court-provided lawyers, meaning that most indigent defendants who show up represent themselves, often not very well.
Municipal Court is a money-maker for the city. In 2018, the court cost $3 million but brought in $5 million, according to city budget figures.
The Common Council in November 2016 approved a budget amendment by Ald. Michael Murphy that allocated $45,000 to the defense lawyer project. Due to city delays in getting the paperwork done, however, the project did not launch until last year. Funding ran out at the end of 2019.
Legal Action has applied for Community Development Block Grant funding to continue the program, and the council will vote on that in late spring or early summer.
Murphy said he is "fully supportive" of the Municipal Court project. If it is not funded this year, he said, "I will certainly put it in the budget for next year."
Some results, according to the Legal Action report:
Many clients don't have permanent addresses because of chronic homelessness.
"These are individuals who absolutely need legal representation," Ashley said.
Some clients had mental health issues with "very stark competency issues....These individuals should not be getting citations," Ashley said.
Both the city attorney's office and Municipal Court judges were receptive to Legal Action's work, she said.
Sometimes, mental health issues result in a client receiving multiple citations for offenses such as loitering or disorderly conduct, Ashley said.
The agency cited in its report an example – a woman with severe mental health issues "routinely cited for retail theft from various stores for behavior that simply is out of her control."
Legal Action represented her in four cases that that were dismissed because those issues, saving the woman $1,500 in court charges.
In another case not related to mental health, a woman's identity was stolen by a relative, who then received several traffic tickets under the victim's name.
"LAW successfully obtained the dismissal of the citations and significantly, the client's driving privileges were not suspended," Legal Action said in the report.
In yet another instance, a woman for whom English is a second language was accused of shoplifting "and was unable to explain a simple misunderstanding due to the language barrier," LAW said.
"This client's story was particularly impactful, because she is an elderly woman who came to this country 25 years ago and had previously no contact with law enforcement. She endured a tremendous amount of stress and felt an immense amount of shame because of the ticket."
By Gretchen Schuldt
While Milwaukee city politicians last week asked Gov. Evers for help in addressing reckless driving, the city's own Police Department is writing far fewer traffic tickets than it did last year, Municipal Court figures indicate.
The number of traffic cases filed in the court fell by 46%, or 26,462 cases, this year through September, a reflection of decreased enforcement.
While not every traffic ticket becomes a Municipal Court case – some may be dismissed before they get to court, for example – court filings are a good proxy for police activity.
There were 30,940 traffic cases during the first nine months of the year compared to 57,402 through September of last year, according to Municipal Court statistics. This year’s numbers also trail the 31,515 filed total through September 2017.
Ticket-writing jumped in 2018 amid public outrage about reckless driving. The anger has not abated, but the ticket writing has.
By Gretchen Schuldt
Getting a ticket instead of being charged with a crime might seem like a lucky break, but that ticket can get you added to a criminal database and ultimately hurt future job and housing opportunities, according to Kori Ashley, staff attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin.
If that ticket is accompanied by arrest and fingerprinting the information can go – and sometimes must go – to the State Department of Justice and become part of a Crime Information Bureau criminal background report provided to anyone who asks for it and pays $7, Ashley said.
"I would say to never ignore the ticket," said Ashley, who represents indigent defendants in Milwaukee Municipal Court. "I would treat this ticket just like I would treat a criminal summons I received in the mail because ultimately, if you have been fingerprinted, it will show up on your background report, just like a criminal arrest and charge."
By Gretchen Schuldt
State legislators have introduced a package of drunk-driving proposals that would increase minimum prison terms for people with five or six drunk driving convictions and criminalize first-offense drunk driving, which now is considered a civil ordinance violation.
Another bill would impose financial penalties on some alleged first-time offenders that are not levied on those charged criminally with operating while intoxicated second offense or greater.
Currently, those convicted of their fifth- or sixth-offense drunk driving offense face a minimum of six months' incarceration and a $600 fine. The bill would require a prison term of at least 18 months.
By Gretchen Schuldt
Seventy percent of the possession of marijuana cases filed in Milwaukee Municipal Court last year were against African Americans, records show.
Blacks account for just 40% of the city's population, but were defendants in 601 of the 860 marijuana possession cases.
In addition, 139 cases were filed against Hispanics, 30 more than the 109 cases filed against whites, according to Municipal Court statistics. Hispanics account for just 17 percent of the city's population; whites make up 45% of the city's residents.
The Municipal Court caseload reflect activities of the Police Department.
The Wisconsin Justice Initiative previously reported that African-Americans in Milwaukee County were far more likely to be charged with felony second offense possession of marijuana cases than are other races.
Simple possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana in the city can usually be charged as a municipal offense rather than as a state misdemeanor or felony. The municipal fine for possession is $50, though costs and fees will increase that to $124 for an adult and $94 for a juvenile. (Smoking marijuana in a public place is punishable by a fine of up to $250 plus fees and costs.)
Below is a map showing the Milwaukee or mostly Milwaukee zip codes where Municipal Court defendants charged with possession of marijuana resided and the number cases brought against those defendants.
Not all Municipal Court defendants live in Milwaukee and so not all cases are shown.
By Gretchen Schuldt
West Allis municipal ordinance violators last year spent a total of 21.5 inmate years in the House of Correction because they did not pay their fines.
That is more time than the 18.7 inmate years non-paying ordinance violators from all 18 other county municipalities served, according to preliminary House of Correction figures.
Because municipal violations are considered civil offenses, rather than criminal, defendants are not entitled to legal counsel. Municipal violations are petty offenses such as disorderly conduct, littering, and traffic violations that are handled through tickets and municipal courts operated by cities and villages.
West Allis' 2017 commitment total was up 3.1 years, from the 18.4 years ordinance violators in that city spent locked up in 2016, according to House data.
In contrast, Bayside, Hales Corners, Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, and West Milwaukee did not send anyone to the House for non-payment of forfeitures in 2017, according to the figures.
A total of 11 municipalities showed a drop in the number of days municipal offenders were locked up. St. Francis showed the biggest decline in days. It sent ordinance violators to the House for a total of 888 days in 2016 and 155 in 2017, a decline of 733 days, or two inmate years.
Bayside, Fox Point, Glendale, Greendale, Greenfield, Oak Creek, River Hills, South Milwaukee, Wauwatosa, and Milwaukee also showed declines.
Milwaukee's figures might be misleading because some Milwaukee's municipal commitments are served at the County Jail, not at the House, where the vast majority of suburban commitments are served.
House commitment days increased in Brown Deer, Cudahy, and Franklin, in addition to West Allis, according to the preliminary figures.
West Allis forfeitures for municipal violations are some of the highest in the county. A simple marijuana possession charge, for example, carried a $1,321 price tag.
That also was the case in 2015, according to a Public Policy Forum report. Meanwhle, the same offense in Bayside typically carried, typically, a $691 financial hit; in Shorewood, the cost was $376; in Wauwatosa, $100 - $200.
State law requires municipalities to reduce the amount of an unpaid Municipal Court fine by at least $50 for each day a violator is jailed, and most (but not all) municipalities hold to the $50 amount. So an unpaid Wauwatosa marijuana citation that would result in a four- to six-day stay in the House would mean in a 26-day stay if the ticket was issued in West Allis.
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