Justice courts tally up years of debt from unpaid fines

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 29, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; What could you &045; or your county government &045; do with $1.1 million?

That’s how much is currently owed in fines in Adams County Justice Court &045; due to a host of factors, according to those who are close to the problem.

&uot;It is a slap to the court system, that people for one reason or another feel like it’s not important to pay it,&uot; said Justice Court Judge Mary Lee Toles. &uot;And (getting fines paid) helps the county’s coffers, too.&uot;

Email newsletter signup

In Wilkinson County, delinquent fines total $798,037 &045; and that figure includes fines recorded only since the justice court system became computerized in 1996.

But those big numbers don’t come from large individual fines.

Justice court fines include the minor crimes and traffic tickets, the small amounts that over the years have added up to big debt for counties throughout Mississippi.

Including assessments, the average fine amount in Wilkinson County, for example, is $136, though some defendants’ fines total in the thousands depending on the charges.

There were more than 4,200 fine records listed in the Wilkinson County Justice Court database in November, including many defendants with separate entries for multiple charges.

What are the problems?

Problem one is that more than 50 percent of those who are ordered to pay fines in Adams County Justice Court are from out of town, making fines difficult to collect through show cause orders or bench warrants.

&uot;If you’re from California and you’re in Natchez and get a ticket, you’re likely to leave town and just never pay it,&uot; Justice Court Judge Charlie Vess said.

Even when people die, move elsewhere or owe fines for years &045; in Adams County Justice Court, some back to the mid-1980s &045; they cannot remove those fines from the books under state law.

In Wilkinson County, too, many of the defendants live out-of-state or have died, although the bulk come from the community.

Justice court clerks are required to keep records of money owed to the courts.

&uot;But under our constitutional government, they can never remit any of that debt, Š so it stays on the books,&uot; said Mark Houston of the Technical Assistance Division of the State Auditor’s Office.

That office conducted a 1996 audit of justice courts around the state that found that more than $60 million in fines was owed statewide to those courts.

Problems included lack of training for court personnel, lack of organization, improper control of tickets and improper handling of judgments, lack of communication between judges and clerks, and inadequate monitoring of justice courts by county supervisors.

Serving warrants

Both judges Vess and Toles, in addition to former judge Danny Barber, stated that getting the Adams County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s constables to serve bench warrants to those who owe fines is a problem.

&uot;We’ve sent a stack of 200 to 300 (bench warrants) to the Sheriff’s Office, and they’d send them back, all signed, on the same day,&uot; Vess said. &uot;An active effort wasn’t made to collect those.&uot;

Sheriff Tommy Ferrell would not comment.

But in previous articles, Ferrell stated that his office would not have the jail space to hold all those sentenced for contempt of court under such warrants.

In addition, he has said, his office is too busy making other arrests and serving warrants for courts of record like circuit courts to serve many justice court warrants.

Barber, himself an ex-constable, said Constable Danny Rollins told him early in Barber’s term as judge that he would not serve bench warrants.

&uot;That’s a false statement,&uot; Rollins said. &uot;Those fines were accumulated long before I came on (as constable), Š and it’s not a constable’s job to collect fines.

&uot;Besides, I set about attempting to serve bench warrants before. The problem is, I had no system to tell whether bench warrants were active or inactive, Š and if I make a false arrest, I’m liable for that.&uot;

Barber said justice court personnel went through the bench warrants before they were handed to the constables &uot;to make sure they were good.&uot;

For his part, newly elected Constable Jason Wisner said has not been approached about the problem of delinquent fines by any judge. &uot;But I’ll be happy to sit down and discuss it with them,&uot; Wisner said.

Constable Ray Brown could not be reached for comment.

Automated tracking?

For second-term Wilkinson County Justice Court Judge Ernest H. &uot;Ernie&uot; Smith, a realistic assessment requires first knowing exactly how much is outstanding.

&uot;You’ve got to have a starting point,&uot; said Smith, who wants the court clerks to input the written records into the computer system before beginning a collection effort.

&uot;I don’t want to just start picking up people at random and have them say ‘My neighbor owes a fine &045; why aren’t you picking him up?’&uot; Smith said.

But court clerks, who are hired by the Board of Supervisors, said populating the computer database with the remaining records would require extensive overtime.

Fourth District Supervisor Robert Morgan said inputting all of the delinquent fines into the computer system is not necessary to begin collecting the money.

&uot;We don’t care what they (defendants) say, we just want to collect some of this money,&uot; Morgan said. &uot;We need to start sending out show causes &045; send out as many as you can send out.&uot;

Still, Smith insists a completely automated system is imperative to begin a fair collection process.

&uot;I want a logical approach to this.

The worst thing a court can do is be accused of being unfair,&uot; said Smith, who blames the accumulation of bad debt partly on a lack of internal controls.

&uot;I give them a deadline to pay their fines, and that date needs to be included in the computer program so the court clerks can print delinquent reports on a daily basis, if necessary,&uot; said Smith.

Automated tracking of each defendant’s payment deadline would enable the court to issue show cause orders in a timely manner, said Smith, who favors a two-pronged approach to collecting the delinquent fines.

&uot;We can handle those in Wilkinson County ourselves, but for those outside the county we need to use a collection agency.

Otherwise, you’re depending on another law agency to collect it for you,&uot; he said.

Who is responsible?

Morgan said supervisors have invited the judges to board meetings in the past to discuss the problem.

&uot;We have tried. We sent out letters asking them to come and explain the problem, but nobody comes to meet with us,&uot; Morgan said.

Smith said he would be willing to serve on a committee to help implement the changes necessary to improve delinquent fine collection.

&uot;We would need input from the judges, the court clerks and some of the supervisors,&uot; he said.

&uot;But the ball is in the supervisors’ lap.

They are the fiscal officers of the county.

If they don’t make an effort to collect it, then it won’t get done,&uot; said Smith.

Supervisors have discussed the need to begin an effort to collect the delinquent fines, but have taken no formal action on the matter since the November report was delivered.

Collection agencies

In recent years, the Board of Supervisors has sought the help of both attorneys and a collection agency, Advantage Collection of Pascagoula, to make a dent in justice court’s delinquent fines.

&uot;They (the agency) are doing some good &045; maybe not as much as we wanted,&uot; said County Administrator Charlie Brown. Figures on how much has been collected by the agency were not available by press time.

Smith said a few years ago he and fellow Justice Court Judge Robert L. Ward hired Counseling Alternatives of Magnolia to collect delinquent fines and monitor defendants much like probation officers do in circuit court cases.

&uot;I had an Attorney General’s opinion that said it was legal, and he did a good job.

He was actually collecting the county’s fines before charging his fees,&uot; said Smith.

But Smith said the board did not fully support the use of a collection agency, and the company eventually withdrew from Wilkinson County.

Morgan said the board did not support the idea because the county was not collecting its money.

&uot;This guy was getting his share, but the county was not getting a dime,&uot; Morgan said.

Show cause

Adams County’s justice court judges have issued show cause hearing notices in the past, ordering those with delinquent fines to court to explain their situation and make payment arrangements.

That is why the amount of delinquent fines isn’t even higher, Vess said. Still, even those who make arrangements can walk out on those arrangements &045; until law enforcement catches up with them on another charge.

Toles said the only reason she is reluctant to send some people to jail for contempt of court for not paying fines is that many do not have the money for adequate representation in court.

&uot;That’s where I think having a system of public defenders (in justice court) would help,&uot; Toles said.

Vess and Toles both sentence some offenders who can’t pay their fines to work programs until their fines are paid.

Justice courts around the state has resorted in many cases to issuing contempt orders and getting the state Department of Public Safety to suspend offenders’ driver’s licenses.

Many boards of supervisors have, like Adams County, also hired collection agencies to help.

But until legislators pass a law allowing courts to erase old fines or those that cannot be collected, the problem will continue, Houston said.

&uot;But it’s not a compelling issue, something that galvanizes voters &045; so that probably won’t happen,&uot; he said.