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Two Dollars . . . I Want My Two Dollars:
Well, it's not a case about two dollars, but here's a federal appeal over a $25 processing fee issued for a traffic violation: United States v. Trimble. The Ninth Circuit holds that the magistrate judge violated the Constitution by imposing the fee on some traffic violators and not others based on the happenstance of which form they received. Hat tip: Decision of the Day.
Archon (mail):
This case falls into a line of cases that I would like to write an article on for a small publication.

If anyone out there can provide other cites for cases involving unusual appellate review of parking or traffic tickets I would appreciate it. I am mainly looking for cases where some form of discretionary review was granted by a state Supreme Court or decision involving a federal lawsuit over a traffic or parking ticket.

Any input would be great. Thanks!
5.30.2007 5:21pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
After reading the case, I have to say that they reached the right result, though perhaps the concurrence is correct that they went a little far beyond the minimum necessary to reach the right result.

Oh, but the hope this will generate for all the disgruntled, pro se traffic court litigants, waiting all day to tell the court just how they've been wronged. As a former prosecutor, I groan at the prospect that this decision will encourage more traffic defendants to gum up the system by demanding their right to a trial, forcing the traffic court prosecutor to stay in court for a very, very long day, with 99 out of 100 cases resolving in a predictable fashion.

But of course as an American citizen, I love this decision. Somebody thought they weren't being treated fairly by the authorities, complained, petitioned the government (in the form of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals) for a redress of their grievance, and won!

The first page of the opinion is a classic:

BERZON, Circuit Judge:

The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. The United States produced its first automobile in 1877, and the first traffic ticket issued in 1904.

Fast forward to 2005: Sahneewa Trimble was issued several traffic tickets, fairly serious ones, on a military base. She believed that she was charged too much — more than other drivers who did the same thing on federal property on the same day. When Trimble appeared in court to plead guilty to the violations, the magistrate judge dismissed two of the six original citations but imposed a twenty-five dollar processing fee for three of the remaining ones. Standard stuff, except that some individuals, like Trimble, were charged the fee while the others were not. Why? Because Trimble received a new version of the citation notice and the fortunate others received an older version. So what follows is a tale of two forms, old and new. We reverse — demonstrating, again, that our Constitutional principles protect against monetary injuries large and small.
5.30.2007 5:28pm
James Grimmelmann (mail) (www):
Best. Movie. Ever.
5.30.2007 5:28pm
anonVCfan:
"We reverse — demonstrating, again, that our Constitutional principles protect against monetary injuries large and small."

De minimis non curat lex, I say. How much are the filing fees in the Ninth Circuit?
5.30.2007 5:31pm
Dave N (mail):
In many ways, Judge O'Scanlain's concurrence gets it right:

O'SCANNLAIN, Circuit Judge, concurring in the judgment:
I agree that no rational basis supports the discriminatory
imposition of processing fees in this case. However, the
majority opinion exceeds the grounds necessary to decide this appeal. Accordingly, I concur only in the judgment.

Judge O'Scannlain didn't say it but I will: What a monumental waste of time and money!

I am glad my federal tax dollars are so hard at work.

I was mentally calculating the costs of the federal attorneys (on both sides) who wrote the briefs and argued; the time of the three judges on the appellate panel in hearing the oral argument and then then drafting the opinion; and all of the other costs involved in resolving whether Trimble actually owed $75--and then orderiing publication of the opinion, no less.

Judge Berzon noted the Supreme Court's poll tax case, Harper v. Va. State Bd. of Elections as involving a smaller amount, but it involved a much larger principle than whether or not certain people would have to pay a processing fee while others did not based on when the actual traffic citation form was printed.

Why this case was selected for publication is a larger mystery. The apparent holding (if two citation forms are being used, the judge must treat treat all defendants the same) is hardly earthshaking. In fact, it is hardly memorable.
5.30.2007 5:43pm
acroso:
"This is looking more and more like the Bush administration's domestic version of Iraq: a big risky gamble, based on wishful thinking and nonexistent administrative competence that will end in disaster?"

-May16th Kausfiles from slate magazine.

Dead on analogy for this debacle. The only way Bush can cement his legacy as the dumbest president in history is with Domestic Iraq. He wants to mess up our country like he has messed up our foreign policy.

We have to secure the borders over there so we don't have to secure em over here. Where can I sign up to secure Iraq's borders??

http://www.slate.com/id/2166678/
5.30.2007 5:47pm
billb:
Dave N, and others: Yes, it was a waste of taxpayer dollars to write such a lengthy opinion and for government lawyers to fight the appeal, but shouldn't these government lawyers have recognized the state's error and conceeded the case? The state is still going to have to refund a bunch of people their $25. Everyone (here) agrees the case was a loser to begin with. So why fight it?
5.30.2007 5:52pm
Dave N (mail):
I agree with PatHMV's post (which was posted while I was still editing mine). Yes, I agree that sometimes principles are more important than the dollar amount in controversy (it certainly was in Harper). I would also agree that which principles are more important than money is very much in the eye of the beholder--and that equal protection under the law is very important as a principle. Maybe I am just being cranky, however, but I resent that my tax dollars are being spent on such a trivial case.
5.30.2007 5:54pm
Le Messurier (mail):
Dave N

I was mentally calculating the costs of the federal attorneys (on both sides) who wrote the briefs and argued; the time of the three judges on the appellate panel in hearing the oral argument and then then drafting the opinion; and all of the other costs involved in resolving whether Trimble actually owed $75--and then orderiing publication of the opinion, no less.

The costs you list here are all fixed expenses and would have been incurred in any event except for publication costs. Was it inefficient? Yes. Was it stupid not to conceed the case at the outset? Yes. Sounds like a government operation to me! Which I resent much more than the tax dollars.
5.30.2007 6:28pm
Public_Defender (mail):
The court's decision to treat court costs the same as any other criminal penalty could create logistical difficulties for clerks. Court costs change all the time. It seems like there's always a new fee for this or that, and costs go up.

If raising court costs creates ex post facto problems, clerks will have to assess costs based on the date of the alleged offense, instead of on the date of the event causing the charge, as they do now. Heavily computerized clerks (and even small town clerks are computerized these days) may not have a mechanism to make this distinction.

As to the facts of this case, maybe I'm just jaded by practicing before a right-wing judiciary, but why can't the court hold that Ms. Trimble can't complain just because other drivers caught a lucky break? There are lots of arbitrary reasons why some people get away with traffic infractions and others don't. For example, if you speed by a cop when he's got his hamburger in his mouth, you don't get a ticket. If he's paying attention, you do.

As to the waste of money, I see that a lot over smaller cases. In many restitution cases, the government would save taxpayer money (and get the victim his or her money faster) if the government just cut a check to the victim and forgot about trying to squeeze any blood out of my turnip of a client.
5.30.2007 7:38pm
EH:
Dave N: "Judge O'Scannlain didn't say it but I will: What a monumental waste of time and money!"

Since ticket revenue tends to go directly into the city's General Fund, perhaps the city can reimburse the courts for the time wasted. After all, at the root of this are the police and bureaucrats who push the concept of ticketing not as a public safety issue but as a municipal revenue source.
5.30.2007 8:32pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
I'm sorry your Mom blew up, Orin.
5.30.2007 9:12pm
George Weiss (mail):
funny the other day i thouhgt orin was giving sentement for the judge who sued the dry cleaner for 64 million becuase:

'doing a litttle wrong to a lot of people is the same as doing a lot of wrong to just 1 guy'

no same sympthies here though...why?

plaitiff isnt a member of the guild
5.30.2007 9:51pm
TDPerkins (mail):
James Grimmelmann wrote:

"Best. Movie. Ever."

Top 10 for sure. But what about Rio Bravo (the one with Mitchum?)
5.30.2007 11:37pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
I agree with DaveN. Now someone should just let me know what the dollar threshold is where legal action is a waste of money, and I will start stealing to my heart's content, making sure that I keep each theft below that theshold.
5.31.2007 1:05pm
New World Dan (www):
I'm not sure I follow the court's logic on this one... because some defendants were granted leniancy, all must be granted leniancy? The judge erred in waiving the fee for some defendants that day, so he must repeat that error for all similarly situated? Does this mean that if there were a judge in an adjacent courtroom hearing cases that assesed the fee to everyone found guilty in his courtroom that they are also entitled to have the fee waved? This may be the first time I've ever seen this defense used successfully anywhere. Certainly, it's never worked for me with parents, schools, or parking tickets.

Also, I've got no problem fighting over the principle of the thing.
5.31.2007 5:03pm