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Lawmakers criticize traffic court fines

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A legislative committee this week unanimously approved a bill that would cap the fines a court could assess for traffic violations. In doing so, several lawmakers expressed outrage and urged the Indiana Supreme Court to investigate fining practices of a Marion County traffic court judge that have led to a federal lawsuit.

But an even broader issue raised by Senate Bill 399 is how the state's trial courts are funded, a topic that ties two other pieces of legislation to the same debate playing out before the Indiana General Assembly this session. Questions have arisen in various committee meetings about the practice of court judgments being directly tied to revenue brought in from infractions, and whether that interferes with the judiciary's role in providing litigants a fair day in court.

On one hand, SB 399 would apply to the roughly 130 Class C infractions statewide. Fines would be capped; however, the fines could be increased within the cap if a person challenged previous tickets unsuccessfully. During the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee meeting Wednesday, members expressed their concern about the policy in Marion Superior Judge William E. Young's courtroom. Committee chair Matt Pierce, D-Indianapolis, said he would write a letter to Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard asking for an investigation.

This legislation came from Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, who filed it specifically on the heels of a December class-action lawsuit challenging the fines being imposed by Judge Young, who's presided over the county's traffic court in Marion Criminal 13 since January 2009. Plaintiffs allege they were penalized for simply taking their cases before the judge, with total costs running more than three times what it would have cost them to accept and pay the citation. 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, the attorney in the federal case, attended the hearing and said he was impressed at the legislators' reactions to what was happening in the traffic court. "They were very angry and upset about what's going on," he said. "We expect this to pass the House ... the only possible hitch might be if the House decides it does have a fiscal impact and sends it back to the Ways and Means Committee after the deadline has passed. That could mistakenly kill the bill."

While Young's bill involving the traffic court weaves through the process, lawmakers are also considering two other bills that tie into that issue - HB 1154 that would impose a minimum $35 fee on traffic infractions to pay for the conversion of Marion County commissioners to magistrates; and SB 307 that would allow a $50 fee on Bartholomew County traffic infractions to pay for a new Superior Court there.

The Senate Appropriations Committee today passed the magistrates bill, while the House Judiciary earlier in the week unanimously approved the Bartholomew County bill and forwarded it to the full House for consideration.

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