Thursday, May 31, 2007
Court Strikes Down Fees Unequally Imposed on Traffic Offenders
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A magistrate judge violated a driver’s constitutional rights by charging her more for her citations than other similar offenders simply because she received a different style citation form, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held yesterday.
Reversing a ruling by U.S. District Judge Franklin D. Burgess of the Western District of Washington, the court vacated $75 in fees that were imposed against motorist Sahneewa Trimble for three federal traffic citations.
While driving on the grounds of Fort Lewis Army Base on July 25, 2005, Trimble received six petty offense traffic tickets from an officer who issued the citations using a recently-modified version of the District Court Violation Notice—the standard form used by federal agencies to issue misdemeanor citations. The modified form contained a reference to a “$25 Processing Fee,” which had not been a part of the older form, but was otherwise essentially the same.
The same day that Trimble was cited, other federal officers issued similar tickets to other drivers using the older form.
The modified forms had been set to replace the old ones by July 1, but due to insufficient supplies of the new notice, federal agencies continued to use the old ones after that date. The newer form was the result of Congress authorizing the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to collect a processing fee from defendants to offset the costs of managing petty offense cases in the federal courts.
As required by her citation, Trimble appeared before a magistrate judge, and pled guilty to four of the six violations. After dismissing the other two citations, the judge imposed fines and three $25 processing fees for three of the remaining tickets.
Objecting to the processing fees, Trimble argued they violated her equal protection and due process rights because the judge had not imposed them on other defendants who had appeared before him that day and received similar tickets during the same time period.
The magistrate judge overruled her objection.
On appeal in the district court, the government conceded the magistrate judge imposed the processing fee only on those defendants who had received the newer version of the violation notice. But Burgess held the distinction was rationally related to the government’s legitimate interests of protecting defendants’ privacy as the notice travels through the mail, and generating revenue for the court system.
The Ninth Circuit held that the government failed to explain how the new form protected offenders’ privacy more than the old one did.
As for the revenue rationale, the panel said it did not explain why everybody similarly situated did not have to pay.
Writing for the panel, Judge Marsha S. Berzon said the only possible reason for the old/new distinction was that people with the newer form had notice of the fee.
But, she said, the notation applied only to those who are able to pay their ticket in the mail—not to defendants charged with petty offenses who were required to appear in court.
“[A]ll defendants appearing in court to answer for a petty offense were left equally in the dark about whether they would have to pay the fee,” she said.
The judge concluded:
“The net result of our excursion into imaginative recreation of possible justifications is that there is no rational, non-arbitrary reason for the new form/old form distinction as applied to petty offenders. As applied to Trimble, new form/old form is no better a distinction than that between Wednesday/Friday or odd/even.”
Senior Judge A. Wallace Tashima concurred in the opinion.
Concurring separately, Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain said that while he agreed the imposition of fees on Trimble lacked a rational basis, Berzon’s opinion “exceed[ed] the grounds necessary” to decide the appeal.
The case is United States v. Trimble, 06-30298.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company