Class-action lawsuit takes aim at McHenry County court fees

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Anyone who's ever been in McHenry County court for a traffic offense knows there are two pipers to pay: the fine and the court fees.

The judge hands down the fine, plus whatever fees the circuit clerk will charge. And when you walk to the clerk's office to pay the fees, they oftentimes add up to more than what the judge ordered you to pay for breaking the law.

A class-action lawsuit
, however, alleges that the process used by the county's 22nd Judicial Circuit is unconstitutional and that defendants over the years have been improperly charged millions of dollars.

The suit filed Wednesday in federal court in Rockford claims that fees imposed by the circuit clerk's office after cases are adjudicated are, in fact, added fines, which violates defendants' constitutional right to due process and governments' constitutional prohibition against ex post facto addition of penalties.

And because they are fines, the total paid often illegally exceeds the maximum financial penalty allowed under state law, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit lists four plaintiffs represented by three attorneys, and names Circuit Clerk Katherine Keefe as the defendant in her capacity holding the office. Court fines and fees are set by state statute, not by Keefe or the court's judges.

"There are a whole bunch of [fees] that are statutorily considered fines. In McHenry County, you walk out of court with an order that says, pay $50 plus court costs, but the problem is that the only person who can order fines is the judge. People are leaving court and getting additional fines," said attorney Matt Haiduk, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys.

Neither Keefe nor the McHenry County State's Attorney's Office had been served with the lawsuit Wednesday. Keefe deferred comment to the state's attorney's office, which likewise was limited in what it could say.

"We'll consult with our client, take a look at case law that's been cited, and form an opinion on it," First Assistant State's Attorney Norm Vinton said.

The plaintiffs include two individuals convicted of driving under the influence, one of improper lane use and one of speeding between 11 and 14 mph over the speed limit.
In the case of the two DUI plaintiffs, a judge fined them $1,250 and $1,000 each. But the fees added an additional $1,538 and $1,771, respectively, resulting in totals exceeding the $2,500 maximum fine allowed by statute for their type of offense, the lawsuit states.

Haiduk said the fines should be part of the court proceedings in McHenry County. He said lawbreakers in Kane and other counties know what they will be paying in court fees before they leave the courtroom.

The lawsuit argues that fees charged to administer programs unrelated to the charge are actually fines, and, therefore, cannot be levied after court proceedings without due process. The two plaintiffs charged with improper lane use and speeding each paid $28 to finance the state-mandated drug court, mental health court and child advocacy center.

"The fines imposed by the clerk without a court order, are void and must be refunded to plaintiffs and all similarly situated individuals," the lawsuit states.

A federal judge has to certify the class-action lawsuit before it can proceed. If the lawsuit is certified and people can join to recoup their fines, the number of plaintiffs in the class and the money involved could be substantial.

It proposes an eligible class of an estimated 750,000 people who have been sentenced since 2003 to pay fines and court costs for traffic, misdemeanor or DUI offenses. As for the amount from which to draw for restitution, the lawsuit singles out eight different fines and fees totaling more than $23.5 million paid to the county for that time period.

While there are numerous separate court fees a circuit clerk can charge, about 30 of them are the most common. And they can add up.

The Northwest Herald asked the Circuit Clerk's Office for a 2012 story on court fees to calculate them for an adult driver pulled over by a sheriff's deputy for speeding 15 mph above the speed limit. Besides the $50 fine and court supervision for pleading guilty, the driver would pay an additional $220 in fees.

The other attorneys representing the plaintiffs are Ray Flavin and James Kelly.