Missoula city officials overstepped their authority in 2013 when they passed a resolution adding surcharges for certain convictions in Municipal Court, the Montana Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.
Now a woman who pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor in Missoula Municipal Court in 2017 is suing for a refund of that $25 surcharge. And, her attorneys are seeking to file a class-action lawsuit to return that surcharge to everyone who has paid it since the resolution was passed more than five years ago.
The Missoula City Council passed the resolution adding the surcharge on June 3, 2013, to better fund the city attorney's office — "to increase the safety of the community," the resolution states.
The Supreme Court opinion stated that while the city can impose fines for its own laws, it does not have the authority to add additional fees or fines on sentences for state law violations.
The ruling comes at the end of an appeal by Corrine Franklin, who argued against the charge through both state District and Supreme courts.
Justices in their Tuesday opinion laid out a list of charges tied to Franklin's fines and fees after she pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct. Those included a $15 surcharge to pay for the salary of the city attorney and deputies, a $50 surcharge to pay for a victim and witness advocate program, a $10 surcharge to pay for court information technology, and a $10 charge to pay for the Montana Law Enforcement Academy. All four of these are specifically identified in and allowed by Montana Code Annotated.
Tacked on top of Franklin's charges was the $25 surcharge required by the city of Missoula to be paid toward the city attorney's office.
Franklin filed a motion to strike the city-imposed fine from her sentence, but was denied in Municipal Court, as well as in District Court, which said self-governing municipalities have the authority to impose special assessments related to the benefit provided by the city — in this case, public safety.
"A self-governing municipality may enact local resolutions or ordinances to defray the expense of the city attorney's office, and may enact its own local punitive laws," Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker wrote in the opinion. "But sentencing courts, including municipal courts, must have statutory authority to impose a sentence for a state law violation."
In Wednesday's suit filed against the city, attorneys for a Ravalli County woman who pleaded no contest to careless driving in Missoula Municipal Court and was charged the $25 local fee as part of her sentence say the city has been illegally collecting those charges from every person who was convicted or has pleaded guilty there since 2013.
"The government can always find a use for more money," Jesse Kodadek, one of the attorneys suing the city, told the Missoulian Thursday. "But that doesn't give it the right to take it in an illegal or unconstitutional way."
Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent said Thursday city officials may choose to clean up the resolution's language, but the Supreme Court decision now precludes any city judge from imposing additional fines on state law violations.
Parsing out the city-imposed fines from state-allowed fines, as sought by Kodadek's lawsuit, may prove difficult. Nugent didn't know if the money from fine collections is separated and tracked as it moves up to the state and back down to the city toward each of those line items mentioned in the Supreme Court example.
The city already has trouble collecting these fees in many cases, Nugent said, considering how many people who are fined are college students who move away after graduation, or homeless people who don't pay.
"The practical aspect of it is you aren't able to collect from these people," he said.
City Council member Jesse Ramos lauded the Supreme Court decision in an interview with the Missoulian on Thursday, calling it "a huge victory for the low-income folks and the city as a whole."
"You're not supposed to raise fines as a way of raising revenue," he said.
Ramos has been a vocal opponent to what he calls excessive spending by the city, especially so in the city's most recent budget, which raised property taxes by 3.85 percent and was passed late last month.
"It's really unfortunate because these fines disproportionately hurt our poorest citizens," he said. "If you can't afford insurance or to fix a brake light and you get a fine for $100, how the heck are you going to afford the fine?"
Ramos said he's going to use the Supreme Court ruling as a "jumping off point" to push further into criminal justice reform at the city level, working with progressive state Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, and Missoula Rises, a local community action group.
While the fine to be removed from future state law violation convictions is just $25, Ramos said the value of that $25 depends on perspective.
"To a homeless person, that's the equivalent of $500 to someone whose working," he said. "I understand the whole pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps argument, but everyone deserves equal treatment under the law."