Helena officials say the surcharges imposed for certain convictions in Municipal Court might be unlawful under a recent Montana Supreme Court decision.
On Sept. 11, the Supreme Court ruled that Missoula city officials overstepped their authority by adding additional fines for Municipal Court convictions resulting from violations of state law.
According to a Sept. 17 note from Helena's interim City Manager Dennis Taylor, Helena City Attorney Thomas Jodoin is still reviewing the Municipal Court's $5 surcharge for those who plead guilty and $20 surcharge for those found guilty. However, Taylor wrote that the city attorney's initial impression is that that the fees "may be unlawful as well under this opinion."
Last week's ruling struck down a 2013 Missoula resolution that required $25 administrative fees to be paid for every conviction or guilty plea to help fund the city attorney's office and "to increase the safety of the community."
The Missoulian reported that the ruling came at the end of an appeal by Corrine Franklin, who argued against the fine through both state District and Supreme Courts. Franklin filed a motion to strike the city-imposed fine from her sentence, but was denied in Municipal Court, as well as in District Court, which said self-governing municipalities have the authority to impose special assessments related to the benefit provided by the city — in this case, public safety.
The Supreme Court opinion stated that while the city can impose fines for violations of its own laws, it does not have the authority to add additional fees or fines on sentences for state law violations.
"A self-governing municipality may enact local resolutions or ordinances to defray the expense of the city attorney's office, and may enact its own local punitive laws," Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker wrote in the opinion. "But sentencing courts, including municipal courts, must have statutory authority to impose a sentence for a state law violation."
According to Jodoin, Helena's fees are "squarely in the nature of the Franklin decision as not authorized by the state."
"It's a local change not found in state law," he said.
Helena officials will now need to decide whether to continue collecting the fee, Jodoin said.
"I suppose people might try to get their money back," he said. "There's an effort in Missoula in a class-action lawsuit."
As reported by the Missoulian, a lawsuit filed by a Ravalli County woman who pleaded no contest to careless driving in Missoula Municipal Court and was charged the $25 local fee is arguing the city has been illegally collecting fines from every person who was convicted or has pleaded guilty there since 2013.
Jodoin said he would be focusing on "formalizing understanding" about what Helena should do next, but also said local governments were required to do a lot of heavy lifting in prosecution of state crimes.
"State resources would be helpful in prosecuting state crimes," Jodoin said. "Local government carries the burden."
Missoulian reporter Seaborn Larson contributed to this report.