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Innocent defendants still have to pay court fees to Cook County

Thursday, March 15, 2012

by ROB WILDEBOER

This week we're looking at some of the ways Cook County makes money when it locks people up. We've seen that the county is one of thousands of government bodies in the U.S. making millions of dollars each year from the inflated prices inmates and their families pay for phone calls from jail.

The county also makes millions from bond. Bond is the money a lot of defendants are required to pay - or they have to stay in jail until their trial is over. The money helps guarantee they'll show up for court. If they don't, they'll lose that money. But at the end of the case, they still don't get all of that money back, even when they're found not guilty. That's happened to Anthony Smith a number of times.

In the summer of 2010, Smith was hanging out with some friends in his old neighborhood in Humboldt Park. Police drove up and Smith knew one of the officers because he'd played basketball with him when the two were kids.

"You know I'm thinking, you know, I know this guy, you know it's gonna be pretty cool," says Smith. "Probably gonna be quick.  He's just gonna run our names.  Oh no, no, no.  That's not what happened."

Smith says he wasn't drinking,  wasn't being noisy, there were no complaints about him.  

"So I'm like, man, what's up Ivan?  You know what I'm saying?  As in, what's up?  What's the problem?  You know, why are you stopping me?"

Smith has plenty of convictions in his past, including gun charges going back to his teen years, but he says on this day, he wasn't doing anything wrong. "Not to say I'm a choirboy or nothing, but, if you're going to lock me up, lock me up for what I do," he says.

Smith's attorney Melinda Power says of the cops, "I think they thought, a bunch of African American men standing on the street corner, oh, those guys must be gang bangers, they must have drugs, they must have guns. Of course, notably, no guns or drugs were found because nobody got arrested for that, the most they got arrested for is drinking on the public way."

Smith says the encounter escalated and he says the officers smashed his face against the car. He was brought to the station where he says he was tazered and roughed up some more. He was charged with drinking on a public way and assaulting an officer and taken to county jail. To get out, he had to post a $1,500 bond. That money is supposed to ensure that he shows up for court and answers for the charges. It took a year and a half for the case to go to trial. After the prosecutors put on their evidence and before the defense even put on their case the judge declared Smith not guilty.

"The case was so bogus he didn't want to hear no more," says Smith.

Power explains, "How can you believe any officer that says I stopped them because I could see he had vodka in a plastic cup?  That's laughable from the beginning because you know nobody can tell what vodka is cause it's a clear-though substance."

Power says the officer also gave testimony that was different than what was in the police report.

So having been found innocent and shown up for court, Smith got his bond money, but not all of it. There was a 10 percent processing fee taken out by the office of the Cook County Clerk of Court, Dorothy Brown. 

"I done got beat up, name dragged through the mud, got to get up and go to court, I'm not even a morning person, I hate to get up early in the morning.  I got to get up early in the morning and show up on court on time and I gotta stand here and listen to people talk about my future and I can't say anything, and then at the end when I win, you know what I'm saying, I should be able to celebrate and be like, hey I won, I'm getting all my money back." says Smith. "No, I still get slapped in the face.  No you can't even have all your money back.  Thanks for coming.  See you next time." 

Ten percent of Smith's 15 hundred dollar bond is a hundred and fifty dollars. After being found not guilty, he had to pay that as a processing fee, and as an aside, if he'd posted his bond on a credit card he would have been stung for another 9 percent. It's like he had to pay for the pleasure of being arrested, detained and prosecuted. He used the system so he should help pay for it.

Smith has had to pay the 10 percent bond fee in a number of cases where he was found not guilty, and again, there are plenty of cases where he has been guilty. But we're talking here about what the system  should do in an instance where a judge or jury have looked at all the evidence and found a defendant not guilty. In one case where Smith was not guilty he posted a $5,000 bond. The 10 percent fee on that is $500.

"Going through all that stress, then you still got to give the county 500 more dollars of your money.  Why should an innocent man have to pay you five hundred dollars?  I don't see what's fair.  Why should you get 10 percent?  What you gonna do with my extra five hundred dollars?" says Smith.

I took Smith's situation and questions and put them to Cook County Clerk of Court Dorothy Brown. She's currently running to keep that job in next Tuesday's primary election. Her Democratic challenger is Chicago Alderman Ric Munoz. It's Brown's office that administers the bond system and charges the 10 percent. I talked to Brown for just a few minutes and here's a transcription of our conversation.

WILDEBOER: "It's a processing fee and I know there's cost involved but when the person's not guilty how can the county justify keeping that?"

BROWN: "Now you just answered your own question.  You said it's a processing fee and there are costs involved so now who exactly pays the cost for that processing fee and that cost, other than the individual that we process it for, whether that is the person that is found innocent or guilty.  The bonds are maintained the same way, we still have to have those employees, they still have to process it. And so either the taxpayers can do and we don't want to raise taxes on taxpayers or the users, which would be the individual, and unfortunately and I really understand and respect what you're saying cause I hate when people are arrested and they're actually innocent as well, and I know, of course I have expungement summits because of those kinds of things..."

WILDEBOER: "So, so, just to clarify, I mean, you don't think that it's fundamentally unfair that an innocent person would still have to pay a processing fee when they shouldn't have been processed in the first place?"

BROWN: "As I said, the problem is that they had to be processed and someone, the same costs are involved where the person is found innocent or guilty.  It's an unfortunate circumstance, it’s the system that we have right now, but someone has to pay that cost and I wouldn't want to raise taxes on the taxpayers to pay that cost for individuals that are found innocent."

According to numbers provided by Brown's office, they bring in $6 to $7 million every year from those 10 percent fees, though they don't have any idea how many of those people were innocent and how many were guilty because they don't track that. To give you some idea of the volume, though, 116,000 people posted bond through the office in 2010.

The law allowing for the 10 percent processing fee is a state law and was implemented in the 1960s, well before Brown's time in office. The current system is actually an improvement over the old bail bondsman system, where people had to put up, and lose, much larger sums of money than they do today. Nonetheless, for Anthony Smith, it still bothers him when he has to pay fees, even when he's innocent.

"You gotta pay bond.  You gotta pay a lawyer.  Then you gotta show up to court.  You show up to court, you the only fool that ain't getting paid.  The judge get paid.  Your lawyer gots to get paid.  State's attorneys getting paid.  Cops, time and a half all day and they only there for 20, 30 minutes.  I feel like a fool sometimes when I gotta go sit in court, " Smith says. "Sometime my lawyer asks me to fix my face, but it's hard to fix your face when you sittin' there and everyone around you is getting paid, and then when it all boils down to it, everybody's gonna go home.  You're the one who goin' to jail."

Smith echoes a cynicism that I hear from a lot of people going through the courts, that sometimes the justice system seems more interested in money than justice.



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