It's pretty simple.
State law says this about what Municipal Court judges are supposed to say when they pass sentence:
The court may defer payment of any judgment or provide for installment payments. At the time that the judgment is rendered, the court shall inform the defendant, orally and in writing, of the date by which restitution and the payment of the forfeiture, plus costs, fees, and surcharges imposed...must be made, and of the possible consequences of failure to do so in timely fashion, including imprisonment...or suspension of the defendant's motor vehicle operating privilege...if applicable. In addition, the court shall inform the defendant, orally and in writing, that the defendant should notify the court if he or she is unable to pay the judgment because of poverty, as that term is used in s. 814.29 (1) (d), and that he or she may request community service in lieu of payment of the judgment.
State statute 814.29(1)(d) says that a person is considered poor if he or she receives means-tested public assistance, including medical assistance, supplemental security income, food stamps or veterans benefits; if the person is represented by a lawyer through a legal services program for the indigent; or if the person is otherwise unable, because of poverty, to pay the costs involved in the case.
Do Milwaukee Municipal Court judges ask about poverty? Do they orally inform defendants that if they can't afford to pay they may request community service? Short answer -- nope.
Let's listen to Presiding Judge Phillip Chavez sentence a man on two illegal parking charges. Listen closely for the oral notice about informing the court if the defendant can't afford to pay.
You won't hear it.
Chavez does not give the legally mandated notice.
We don't mean to single out Judge Chavez. Judge Joann Eiring was hearing cases as a reserve judge when she drew the operating while intoxicated trial of trial of Johnny Holland, who started off by saying he did not understand that he was supposed to have witnesses there that day. The judge found Mr. Holland guilty of the charge, but not guilty of refusing to submit to testing for intoxicants.
Eiring fined Holland $861 and suspended his driver's license for seven months. The audio is not good enough to post here, but here is what she said:
"I’m going to give you 90 days to pay the $861. If you can’t pay it all in 90 days, come back (and) ask for more time. If you ask for more time, we’ll work with you. If you don’t ask for more time and don’t pay it, the alternative is jail time.”
Nothing about poverty, nothing about potential alternatives.
Another judge not following the law.
Guess only defendants have to do that.
These are not cherry-picked cases. We requested two months of audio for each of the three Municipal Court branches. The judges' sentencing comments in all the cases will be posted either in audio or in writing, depending on audio quality. We also have requested a third month of audio, and plan to request more. Maybe the judges will change their habits.
Maybe the Common Council will approve budget amendments to hire a lawyer and citizens' advocate to represent or assist indigent defendants in Municipal Court. Those people could remind the Municipal Court judges that the public is watching what they do and that their courtrooms are not fiefdoms.
For our final performance, here is Reserve Judge Patrick Moszynski, fining a Naomi Frith $100 after she admitted stomping her foot on the floor as a message to the people living below her. Moszynski only failed to give the mandated poverty explanation or even tell her of the consequences for non-payment, he got tangled up in explaining Frith's appeal rights. Give a listen.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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