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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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  1. The is an unsigned editorial masquerading as a news story. Almost everyone quoted was biased in favor of letting all illegal immigrants remain in the U.S. (Ignoring that Obama deported 3.5 million in 8 years). For some reason Obama enforcing part of the immigration laws was O.K. but Trump enforcing additional parts is terrible. I have listed to press conferences and explanations of the Homeland Security memos and I gather from them that less than 1 million will be targeted for deportation, the "dreamers" will be left alone and illegals arriving in the last two years -- especially those arriving very recently -- will be subject to deportation but after the criminals. This will not substantially affect the GDP negatively, especially as it will take place over a number of years. I personally think this is a rational approach to the illegal immigration problem. It may cause Congress to finally pass new immigration laws rationalizing the whole immigration situation.

  2. Mr. Straw, I hope you prevail in the fight. Please show us fellow American's that there is a way to fight the corrupted justice system and make them an example that you and others will not be treated unfairly. I hope you the best and good luck....

  3. @ President Snow - Nah, why try to fix something that ain't broken??? You do make an excellent point. I am sure some Mickey or Minnie Mouse will take Ruckers seat, I wonder how his retirement planning is coming along???

  4. Can someone please explain why Judge Barnes, Judge Mathias and Chief Judge Vaidik thought it was OK to re weigh the evidence blatantly knowing that by doing so was against the rules and went ahead and voted in favor of the father? I would love to ask them WHY??? I would also like to ask the three Supreme Justices why they thought it was OK too.

  5. How nice, on the day of my car accident on the way to work at the Indiana Supreme Court. Unlike the others, I did not steal any money or do ANYTHING unethical whatsoever. I am suing the Indiana Supreme Court and appealed the failure of the district court in SDIN to protect me. I am suing the federal judge because she failed to protect me and her abandonment of jurisdiction leaves her open to lawsuits because she stripped herself of immunity. I am a candidate for Indiana Supreme Court justice, and they imposed just enough sanction so that I am made ineligible. I am asking the 7th Circuit to remove all of them and appoint me as the new Chief Justice of Indiana. That's what they get for dishonoring my sacrifice and and violating the ADA in about 50 different ways.

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