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April 09, 2017

COA: Although it imposes a tax, statute allowing trial courts to order criminal defendants to pay court costs is constitutional

The imposition of court costs on criminal defendants under MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) is constitutional, said the Court of Appeals in People v Cameron, No. 330876. Addressing an issue the Court acknowledged had been challenged before but never settled by a published opinion, the Court held that although the statute imposes a tax on defendants, it is constitutional.
 
In Cameron, The trial court ordered defendant to pay $1,611 in court costs after a jury conviction of assault with intent to do great bodily harm. Defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court lacked authority to impose court costs. The statute at issue, MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii), provides:

(b) The court may impose any or all of the following:
 
(iii) Until 36 months after the date the amendatory act that added subsection (7) is enacted into law, any cost reasonably related to the actual costs incurred by the trial court without separately calculating those costs involved in the particular case, including, but not limited to, the following:
(A)Salaries and benefits for relevant court personnel.
(B)Goods and services necessary for the operation of the court.
(C)Necessary expenses for the operation and maintenance of court buildings and facilities.
 
Following an appeal and remand, the trial court confirmed that the court costs imposed in defendant’s case were “reasonably related to actual costs incurred by the trial court,” as required by MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii).
 
Defendant again appealed, this time arguing that the court cost assessment provision in MCL 769.1k constitutes a tax, as opposed to a fee because the statute raises revenue and criminal defendants do not pay court costs voluntarily. Defendant further argued the following: 1) MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) violates article 4, § 32 of the Michigan constitution, which provides that “[e]very law [that] imposes, continues or revives a tax shall distinctly state the tax”; and 2) MCL 769.1k violates the separation of powers provision of article 3 § 2 of the Michigan Constitution.
 
The Court of Appeals held that the costs imposed under MCL 769.1k are indeed taxes, analyzing several factors that courts use to determine whether a charge constitutes a tax or fee. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the statute is revenue-generating, the costs at issue were not proportionate to the service rendered because any service rendered form the trial court’s role in the prosecution of defendant benefits primarily the public, not the defendant, and the costs were not voluntarily incurred because the defendant did not have the ability to avoid prosecution and the underlying costs. Thus, costs incurred under MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) are properly considered taxes rather than fees.
 
In addition, MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) does not violate article 4, § 32 of the Michigan Constitution, which provides that “[e]very law [that] imposes, continues or revives a tax shall distinctly state the tax” because the statute limits the costs to those “reasonably related” to the costs the court incurs, implicit in the statute is the court’s obligation to establish a factual basis for the costs imposed, and the statute contains several other provisions ensuring transparency and accountability in connection with costs imposed.
 
The Court of Appeals further dismissed defendant’s argument that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) violates the separation of powers provision of the Michigan Constitution, article 3 § 2. Specifically, defendant asserted that the statute improperly delegates to the trial court the authority to determine the amount of the tax where the power to tax rests exclusively with the Legislature. The Court of Appeals recognized that a trial court’s discretion in imposing costs is similar to the discretion a trial court holds in imposing criminal sentences, which is not an unconstitutional delegation of a legislative function. So, even if the Legislature delegated some of its taxing authority to trial courts, the Michigan Constitution does not require absolute separation of powers.
 
Therefore, MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) is a constitutional tax, and trial courts may utilize the statute to impose court costs against criminal defendants. 

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