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Some Michigan communities are helping fund police department budgets by charging criminal defendants for the labor and services involved in their arrest — and they're targeting offenders least likely to speak out: impaired drivers.
Critics of the practice say charging taxpayers for specific offenses amounts to double-dipping because police agencies are charging an extra fee for work that is part of the job.
Community officials disagree.
"We do more paperwork and forms on a drunk driving arrest than just about anything else," Holland Public Safety Chief Matt Messer told the Holland City Council before it approved a "Cost Recovery Ordinance" for drunk drivers in November.
He said the arrest process takes at least two hours. The fees from charging drunk drivers extra are expected to bring the city an extra $50,000 a year.
When asked if taxpayers would get a rebate for the additional revenue collected, Messer said it didn't work that way.
Citiy officials say Michigan statute MCL 769 gives them the authority to charge impaired motorists, but some defense attorneys and judges question the practice.
In Holland, District Judge Bradley Knoll urged the city not to adopt the ordinance.
"The statute says the fees can be imposed if they are part of a sentence, not as a civil cause of action as these fees would do," he said, pointing out cities already recover part of court fines for their expense.
Judge Knoll said he also worries about the financial burden it could put on some defendants.
"I'm not a friend of drunk drivers, but the fines and costs for OWI (operating while intoxicated) cases are higher than for any misdemeanor we handle," he said.
A review of 43 Michigan municipalities shows that more than half have a cost recovery ordinance for drunk driving. Most of the ordinances are written with the same language, but also include murky clauses such as how much can be charged and to whom.
In some cities, you can be billed without a conviction (Grand Rapids) or in others, not meeting the .08 legal definition of impaired driving (Grand Rapids, Southgate, Allegan).
Cities charge in one of two ways, a fee schedule or for actual expense. For example, Wyoming in Kent County charges up to $1.05 a minute, while Shelby Township in Macomb County has a list of fees such as $125 for police, $150 for police and fire, $350 for a blood test, $100 to $150 for decontaminating property, $250 for an interpreter and "possible other fees."
How much cities collect varies. Grand Haven began charging by actual time spent on the incident and the Ottawa County community had collected between $53,300 and $101,348 a year. However, it now uses a flat fee system collecting smaller amounts.
A spokesperson for Lincoln Park in Wayne County said the city tried to assess actual costs but decided "that was more work than it was worth to assess penalties against people who were likely unable to pay."
It is unclear what would happen if a defendant refuses or can't pay the fee. Holland city officials, for example, said the city will send the case to a collection agency if needed. Cities have better luck when they get the district courts to do the collecting but not all judges are willing.
For two years, the district judges in Grand Rapids refused to get involved.
Chief Judge David Buter said the reluctance to get involved was out of concern for the high fee burden already imposed on impaired drivers.
That may change.
"Since you've brought up the issue, we've asked the judges to reconsider," said Catherine Mish, Grand Rapids city attorney.
How far cities are willing to go to collect the fees is unclear.
Defense Attorney Martin Mead recalled when one of his clients refused to pay the fee.
“We wrote and said this wasn’t done properly and we’re not going to pay it and we never heard another word,” Mead said.