Cass working hard to collect attorney fees from those who can afford to pay

Published 8:56 am Saturday, March 20, 2004

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
CASSOPOLIS -- A collection program Cass County Circuit Court implemented little more than a year ago saved taxpayers more than $10,000 by boosting attorney fee reimbursement from $12,000 in 2002 to $22,646 in 2003.
In 2004, $7,100 has been collected, with $32,000 projected by next year -- and 100 percent of the sum feeds county coffers.
Circuit Judge Michael E. Dodge and Court Administrator Barb Wilson appeared before the Board of Commissioners Thursday afternoon at the invitation of Chairman Robert Wagel to explain their effort.
Traditionally, courts impose fines and costs to collect from criminal defendants -- "but only after they've been found guilty, which makes sense," the judge said. "But attorney fees are different because you're benefiting from the attorney as you go through the criminal justice process. It's permissible for the court, if you have the ability to pay, to seek some money from you to offset the cost of a court-appointed attorney."
Dodge said he recognizes that many people lack the ability to go out and spend a few thousand dollars hiring their own attorney.
Another factor, he said, was "I felt there were a lot of people we would never catch up with who did have the benefit of a court-appointed attorney because there are a lot of different outcomes of the criminal justice process -- and not all of them afford us the opportunity to collect attorney fees."
For example, the court typically could only collect if a defendant ended up placed on probation, where an officer could supervise collection efforts and bring any need for enforcement to the judge's attention.
Some cases end up pleading out to a lesser charge in another court, where attorney fees may or may not be collected, but we didn't have any control over that. And sometimes cases are dismissed, and the person may have had a court-appointed lawyer all through the system, and the county is simply out that money."
Wilson remembers her "overwhelming" first assessment of accounts receivable. "Without additional staff members, there was just no way we could aggressively collect on every single item, so we decided to target court-appointed counsel."
She found that Kalamazoo County had implemented a successful program for recouping attorney fees spent on indigent defendants. "They were kind enough to share their information and forms with me," she said. "We began the program in February 2003. Its goal is to help offset the cost the county incurs for court-appointed attorneys. The program works with defendants who are out on bonds. There's a flat fee of either $250 or $350 charged. It's $250 if they plead at District Court level and come to Circuit Court for sentencing. Anything after that is a straight $350 -- regardless of the outcome of their case," Wilson said. "So that means if they get to Circuit Court and they decide to get their own attorney, or if it's dismissed or remanded back to District Court. For whatever reason, it's a flat $350."
Wilson said Judge Paul Deats' Fourth District Court assists her office.
Wilson said she deals with every situation on a case-by-case basis.
Once the agreement is signed, the form becomes part of the court file.
Records are updated each week. If the defendant fails to pay, the court sends out a non-payment notice. If the defendant misses a second time, the second notice is more aggressive. Dodge often addresses such issues on the record in pretrial conferences.
Wilson said the reimbursement program takes two to four hours of her time each week.
Commissioner David Taylor, an Edwardsburg attorney, commented, "While Judge Dodge has given credit to Mrs. Wilson, which is deserved because she's the primary factor, I last week heard the judge admonish someone they had 10 days. The judge is doing a very effective job as well."