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Federal case challenges policies of Marion County Traffic Court

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A new lawsuit against Marion County's Traffic Court has implications for how all state-level judges handle fines for citations and violations, and raises questions about whether a part of the judicial system in Indiana's largest county operates fairly and openly.

In the lawsuit filed in December, one man claims he wanted to protest a $25 citation for not wearing his seat belt properly, since he has a pacemaker and his doctor instructed him to wear the shoulder harness under his arm to avoid damaging the medical device. But talk of a court policy that could mean an additional $500 for litigating his case led the man to not challenge the ticket but pay it instead.

Another man traveled 8 miles over the speed limit and fought it in court, despite being warned he could be fined an extra $400 on top of the ticket cost. He lost and ended up being fined $549.50, more than three times what it would have cost him to simply accept the citation and pay the $149.50 fine.

A third man went to court to observe the proceedings, but was told by a bailiff that he couldn't enter as he was not a defendant or involved in any case. The claims are that before court begins, the bailiff announces the closed courtroom policy and threatens to have anyone not involved in a case, yet remains in the courtroom anyway, arrested for trespassing and immediately taken to jail. Once the judge enters and begins court, the bailiff locks the doors so that no one else can enter during the session that can last up to four hours.

Those examples are alleged to have happened in the traffic court known officially as Marion Superior's Criminal Division 13, and each is referred to in the ongoing federal lawsuit against that court, the presiding Judge William E. Young, and the City of Indianapolis. The three plaintiffs are suing to stop others from losing what they claim they have: their constitutional right for a day in court to argue their case on the merits.

The case is Toshiano Ishii, Matthew Stone, and Adam Lenkowsky v. Marion County Superior Court No. 13, The Hon. William E. Young, and the City of Indianapolis, No. 1:09-CV-1509. Indianapolis attorney Paul Ogden filed the case in early December in Marion Superior Court, but it's been transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. The class action complaint seeks to end the policies put in place by Judge Young, who took over the traffic court in January 2009. The suit also targets the newly opened parking citation court in Indianapolis, in which defendants who don't pay their tickets prior to a scheduled hearing could be assessed up to $2,500 in fines.

Those fining and access policies undermine the public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, and are highly prejudicial to the administration of justice, according to the lawsuit.

"They're basically punishing people for asking for their day in court," Ogden said. "Some will say that the judge has the authority under statute to increase fines, but you always come back to the fact that the fines are being tacked on because people are wanting to fight a ticket in court, not because of what the judge finds out during the case. The principal is that people should be able to ask for a trial, and be allowed to have that trial without the fear of being burdened because of that. They deserve that right."

Chief litigation counsel for Indianapolis Jonathan Mayes said it's too early in the process to address most of the issues in the suit, but he said many of the comments and allegations by the plaintiffs are taken out of context.

For example, on the issue of public access, Mayes said that the state fire marshal limits how many people should be inside the courtroom at one time and that regularly impacts the caseload and access.

"You have such a large amount of cases during the day and you hear them at a rapid pace, outside of what you may see in another state or federal court," he said. "They often set hundreds of cases, and when you have that many defendants and an equal amount of traffic enforcement officers, you know that the limit could easily be exceeded for that purpose of what the fire marshal orders. You have to do something."

It's not fair to accuse the court of simply denying people access, as if there were open seats available in the courtroom, he said.

"There are so many permeations that reach the conclusion that what the judge does is reasonable and constitutional," Mayes said. "To jump to the conclusion that the judge is violating the law is a rush to judgment without looking at the entire picture."

Ogden said that under state law, court costs are limited to $70. He also noted that a specific statute imposes a fee ceiling of $500 for total costs, but that the Marion County Traffic Court has gone above that to impose additional fines on top of the traffic ticket costs.

He plans to ask the federal court to certify a question for the Indiana Supreme Court to review - specifically how state courts are allowed to assess fines and run their courtrooms under the state law and constitution.

"In this case, I'm not sure the federal court can tell state court judges how to run their courts," Ogden said, pointing out that three of the 11 counts deal with federal issues and the rest involve state law questions. "The Indiana Supreme Court really has jurisdiction in deciding how state courts are run and they should decide those issues."

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