In a recent letter, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor criticized court practices “designed to maximize revenue by taking advantage of our citizens or ignoring basic constitutional standards.” As she wisely observed, courts should be “centers of justice, not automatic teller machines whose purpose is to generate revenue for governments, including themselves.”
Unfortunately, citizens facing Ohio’s “mayor’s courts” or civil forfeiture proceedings are treated as little more than ATMs. Under mayor’s courts, mayors of municipalities with at least 200 residents can preside over their very own court. Mayor’s courts are courts in name only: The mayor need not be a lawyer. Proceedings don’t have to be transcribed nor do defendants have a right to a trial by jury.
Most perverse of all, any fines and fees collected from a mayor’s court (often from traffic violations) flows to the town’s budget. Clearly, that creates an incentive to rule against defendants, which shreds any appearance of impartiality.
As a result, many small towns can easily generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from a mayor’s court. Considering just how small many of these municipalities are, revenue from a mayor’s court can be a tremendous windfall. According to the Ohio Supreme Court, the state has nearly 300 mayor’s courts, which heard almost 300,000 cases in 2016. Almost 75 percent of those courts were in municipalities with under 5,000 people.
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Local governments can further profit from Ohio’s civil forfeiture laws, which allow police and prosecutors to keep up to 100 percent of the cash and property they confiscate. From 2010 to 2012, Ohio agencies collected at least $25.7 million in state forfeiture revenue, according to a report by the Institute for Justice. The true amount was likely even higher since several agencies failed to report their forfeiture activity. Unfortunately, data since then has been hard to come by: In 2012, the state repealed this recordkeeping requirement, which undermines transparency and accountability.
Until last year, law enforcement could even forfeit any property without filing criminal charges. But thanks to a recent bipartisan reform, seized property valued at under $15,000 can only be forfeited following a criminal conviction. Ohio’s criminal-conviction requirement is certainly a step in the right direction.
Yet as long as law enforcement can keep what they seize, Ohio’s police and prosecutors will have a powerful motivation to prioritize forfeiture cases and treat forfeiture money as their own private slush fund. To eliminate this incentive, lawmakers should follow the lead of seven states and Washington, D.C. and redirect any and all forfeiture proceeds to a neutral fund, like the state general fund or drug treatment programs.
As Chief Justice O’Connor noted, “focus on the ‘business’ of the courts appears at times to be overtaking interest in our fundamental responsibility to do justice.” Abolishing mayor’s courts and civil forfeiture would go a long way to restore that fundamental responsibility.