Mass. High Court Upholds Charging Fees for Traffic Ticket Appeals

By | September 22, 2011

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that charging filing fees to residents appealing traffic tickets does not violate equal protection. The Sept. 21 decision affirms the lower court’s ruling.

The court said it is upholding filing fees for appealing traffic tickets because those are the types of cases that drain the district court’s resources.

In Massachusetts, people appealing a non-criminal motor vehicle infraction pay a filing fee while those contesting other types of civil violations do not. That’s because the state offers much greater procedural rights for people appealing non-criminal motor vehicle infractions compared with other types of civil violations. And that takes more resources out of the court system, which must be at least partly offset by imposing filing fees to those cases, the court explained. The fees also deter people from filing frivolous appeals. (A appeal hearing before a clerk-magistrate for a noncriminal motor vehicle infraction requires a $25 filing fee. A further appeal to a district court judge costs additional $50, payable in cash.)

‘Rational Basis’ for Requiring Filing Fees

“We conclude that there is a rational basis for requiring those cited for a noncriminal motor vehicle infraction alone to pay a filing fee and not requiring a filing fee for those contesting other types of civil violations,” the Supreme Judicial Court stated.

“The process provided to…those who challenge a motor vehicle violation is significantly greater than that afforded to those who challenge a civil infraction,” the court stated. Those contesting motor vehicle violations are entitled to a hearing before a judge or clerk-magistrate while those contesting a civil infraction may only be heard by an assistant clerk. Those found responsible by a clerk-magistrate for a motor vehicle violation are allowed to obtain a de novo hearing before a judge. But those contesting a civil infraction have no entitlement to a de novo hearing on appeal.

“Where the Legislature provides greater process that imposes greater demands on the resources of the District Court, it is rational for the Legislature to impose filing fees, waivable where a litigant is indigent, to offset part of the additional cost of these judicial proceedings,” the court ruled.

Fees Offset Cost of Judicial Proceedings

The court also noted that the number of hearings on civil motor vehicle citations each year also dwarfs the number of hearings on public smoking and marijuana violations. “Where approximately 700,000 motorists cited for moving violations potentially may seek recourse in the district court each year, and where approximately 200,000 seek clerk-magistrate hearings, it is rational for the Legislature to deter frivolous filings by requiring a $25 filing fee, and to deter frivolous appeals from a clerk-magistrate’s finding of responsibility by requiring payment of an additional $50 fee to schedule a hearing before a judge.”

The case involves motorist Ralph Sullivan, who was stopped and issued a citation assessing $100 penalty for a moving violation on April 30, 2009. He requested a hearing before a clerk-magistrate in the district court to challenge the citation. He received a notice that the hearing had been scheduled and that, to have his case heard, he needs to pay a $25 filing fee in cash before the hearing.

At the hearing, the clerk-magistrate found Sullivan responsible for the violation charged. Sullivan then appealed to a district court judge, and was required to pay an additional $50 filing fee for appeal hearing.

The district court judge found him not responsible for the alleged violation. Afterwards, Sullivan moved for a refund of the $25 and $50 filing fees. That motion was denied, and the denial was affirmed by the appellate division of the district court. Sullivan then filed an appeal in the appeals court, which was transferred to the Supreme Judicial Court.

The case is POLICE DEPARTMENT OF SALEM vs. RALPH C. SULLIVAN, SJC-10790, Sept. 21, 2011, Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

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