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Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case on Jail Booking Fees

by Christopher Zoukis

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to rule on the issue of jail “booking fees” – fees charged when arrestees are jailed, which are not always returned upon their release.

The case involved a $25 fee charged to everyone arrested in Ramsey County, Minnesota. One person who was arrested, charged $25 and then released found out how hard it is to get a refund. Corey Statham had been arrested for disorderly conduct, but his case was dismissed and he was freed from jail. When he tried to get his $25 back, Statham learned that he would first have to prove his innocence before the booking fee would be returned.

Attorney Jason M. Hiveley, representing Ramsey County, acknowledged there are hoops to jump through in order to get the $25 fee back. “There is some legwork involved,” he said. “They can do it as soon as they have the evidence that they haven’t been found guilty.”

Forcing defendants to prove they aren’t guilty in order to have their own money returned runs afoul of the presumption of innocence and the right to due process, Statham argued. Additionally, jail booking fees such as those in Ramsey County give rise to perverse incentives. Statham’s attorney, Michael Carvin, noted that “[p]roviding a profit motive to make arrests gives officers an incentive to make improper arrests.”

“The reality is that few people will take the time, undergo the hassle, or brave the interactions with law enforcement to recover their $25, such that the County will keep most of the fees it collects, even from the concededly innocent,” Carvin wrote. “The County undoubtedly knows this, which gives it an incentive to arrest more people, collect more fees, and obtain additional revenue.”

Unsurprisingly, county officials had a different perspective. “Municipal services come at a cost,” they stated in a court pleading.

After Statham and another arrestee who was charged a booking fee, Erik Mickelson, filed suit, the federal district court dismissed their complaint on a motion for judgment on the pleadings. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed on May 4, 2016. The Court of Appeals noted there were substantial state interests in the jail booking fee system, while the plaintiffs had failed to complete the refund process and thus failed to state a due process claim.

The Court also held that the county’s policy of returning arrestees’ remaining funds in the form of a prepaid debit card did not violate their procedural due process rights because the fees were both avoidable and minor. Further, the plaintiffs’ substantive due process claim was “not properly before” the appellate court. See: Mickelson v. Cnty. of Ramsey, 823 F.3d 918 (8th Cir. 2016).

Mickelson and Statham filed a petition for certiorari, and legal observers hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would accept the case since it ordered the county to submit a brief in response. The high court declined to grant cert on April 17, 2017, however, letting the appellate decision stand.

Many local jails across the nation impose booking fees. And while the Supreme Court declined to take this case, “as more and more of these fees and fines are charged, it’s becoming hard to ignore them,” noted Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. 


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