Residents of poor neighborhoods see more than their share of costly municipal citations

By Brendan O'Brien

November 11, 2015


The Municipal Court, at 951 N. James Lovell St., makes a profit every year, according to the city’s budget office. (Photo by Sue Vliet)

Johnny Ruffin reached into his wallet and pulled out $35, raising the wrinkled bills up toward a flock of chirping seagulls gliding above, defiantly displaying most of the money he had to his name for anyone to see.

About 10 minutes earlier, Ruffin explained his financial plight to a Milwaukee Municipal Court judge who had none of it, telling him that he must pay $120, the last of the $1,200 in fines and fees that he had amassed over the last decade for various minor traffic and drug offenses. 

"Tickets have just built up. I have been paying since 2005 and I still can't believe I'm not caught up... every time I pay $60, $60, $60," he said, adding that he doesn’t know how he’ll find $120. "I'm clueless right now."

The 35-year-old black man is no saint. But the two-time felon has been trying to make amends by working a full-time job at a gun factory and routinely making payments to the court system to avoid jail time, despite claiming that the amount he was told he still owed is inaccurate.

“A lot of the stuff they got me on wasn’t even me… but I don’t want to go to jail. It’s crazy,” he said. “I’m locked into the system until I can get it all cleaned up. I’m going to be stuck for awhile. I’m chalking it up to the system.”

Ruffin’s situation is emblematic of the financial entanglement many poor black men have gotten themselves into with the city’s municipal judicial system, according to local experts who say the system criminalizes poverty by levying monetary penalties, driver’s license suspensions and ultimately jail time on defendants who do not have the means to pay their citations.

“This is a part of the cycle of poverty,” said John Pawasarat, director of the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“It’s a pretty irresponsible way to do business if you’re a public body dealing with the citizens in your city. These people are on the fringe and this is the last thing they need,” said Pawasarat, who focuses his efforts on how driver’s license suspensions affect a defendant’s ability to keep a job.

Despite the rampant poverty that grips Milwaukee’s inner city, citations that carry a relatively hefty fine are one of the city’s methods of choice to punish offenders for non-criminal infractions.

For instance, a disorderly conduct citation carries a fine of at least $200, which could amount to two-thirds of a weekly pay check for an individual who earns $7.25 an hour, the minimum wage for a full-time job. Defendants who are found guilty must pay a fine or face a suspended driver’s license or jail time.      

According to court data obtained by NNS through an open records request, the Milwaukee Police Department writes a disproportionate number of citations in some of the city’s poorest areas. Although only 12 percent of Milwaukee residents live in two of the city’s poorest ZIP codes (53206 on the North Side and 53204 on the South Side), people in those ZIP codes received 17 percent of the 430,000 tickets written from 2011 to 2014.  

The disparity in citations by income is also illustrated by comparing the number of tickets written in the 53206 ZIP code, where half the residents live in poverty, to the number written in the 53215 ZIP code, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood where about a third of residents live in poverty, the same as the citywide average. Police wrote about one ticket for every four people in 53206 compared to one ticket for every 11 people in 53215 in 2014.

Going to Court

A typical day at the Milwaukee Municipal Court, 951 N. James Lovell St., begins at about 8 a.m. when dozens of defendants fill a dingy elevator at the Milwaukee Police headquarters building to travel up to the courtrooms. Once on the second floor, they file through a security checkpoint, where they place their metal items into a plastic bin and walk through a metal detector.

Past security, defendants stand in an orderly line that forms at the service window, where clerks help them navigate through the court process. Some ask for directions. Others inquire about their case. Several just pay their fines quietly and leave the building.  

“I left my paperwork on the bus. It isn’t my day, but I have learned my lesson,” a chatty thin man told a clerk as he paid a portion of his fine. 

Others sit and wait for their turn in court, casually flipping through paperwork or the newspaper. Some glance at the clock or text on their cell phones. They mingle with strangers and watch over their children in tow. Eventually, a woman’s voice over an intercom begins calling names of defendants and directing them to one of three courtrooms. There they watch another clock and wait for a bailiff to call them to the front to discuss their case with a judge.

“I need to get to work. Where’s the judge? I can’t lose my job,” proclaimed a middle-age man toward an unsympathetic bailiff during a recent court session.

Moments later those assembled in the Branch 2 courtroom rise to their feet as Judge Derek Mosley strolls in and takes his seat in front and high above the court. For several hours, he and two other judges work their way through a long docket of cases, hearing the constant drumbeat of financial despair on the part of many defendants.

“I get it. I get it,” Mosley said, back in his chamber, behind a row of smiling and wobbling bobblehead dolls on his desk. “It starts with jobs. The problem we have is that the individuals getting cited probably wouldn’t be getting cited if they had employment… and were stakeholders in the community. When you are a stakeholder, you give a damn about what happens.”

With this in mind, judges try to incentivize employment by waiving fines for defendants who come back to court with proof that they got a job or enrolled in school.

“The court is not going to get any money, but who cares?” Mosley said. “It reduces recidivism because (employed defendants) don’t come back. I have no control over bringing businesses to Milwaukee. I can’t tell Caterpillar to move to Milwaukee, but I can try to get people to jobs to better themselves.” 

Some violations directly involve victims, such as assault and theft, while others are victimless crimes such as littering and loitering. Mosley said he tries to strike a fine balance between fairness for poor defendants and justice for victims, many of whom are also poor and minority. 

“When I get an assault and battery from the 53206 ZIP code, the defendant and the victim look exactly the same,” Mosley said. “I look at the back of the ticket and look at the victim (many of whom) are black or Mexican and poor. It’s hard for me to tell the victim of an assault and battery that (the defendant) lives in the 06 zip code and I have to help them out.”

Even if defendants do not plan to fight their cases, Mosley implores them to come to court, where they can make arrangements to pay their obligations and where he can reduce fines and demerit points, which are assessed when drivers break traffic laws and could eventually lead to a suspended license.  

“Even if you don’t have the money to pay, come to court. Good things will happen,” Mosley said.

He said, however, that defendants typically fear the court system and believe that if they show up, they will be taken into custody if they have a municipal warrant against them. 

“We have a policy in municipal court that if you walk in, you will walk out,” Mosley said, noting that judges will lift all warrants against individuals if they pay $20 toward their fines, regardless of how much they owe.

But some defendants who do come to court continue to cycle through the system, seeing no end in sight to the financial burden their infractions have placed on them.  

“I’m trying to get back on my feet,” Mark Lewis told a judge, who informed him that he owed $531 for a variety of citations.

“I have no money to pay that, honestly… even partial payments kill me,” Lewis said when the judge asked if he had $20 to pay.

“I don’t have any money on me… I’m asking you to trust me… you got my word. I have just enough money until I get paid,” he said before leaving the court without paying a dime, running the risk of eventually being jailed.

Sometimes defendants end up in court because they’ve had to make a tough choice. Take, for instance, Walter Luckett, 50, who tries to make a living by doing small maintenance jobs around the city. He knew the risk he was taking by driving without insurance or vehicle registration.

“I needed the $75 to feed my family,” he said, explaining why he did not renew his registration for $75. 

When police stopped him at the corner of Sherman Boulevard and Wright Street on April 24 Luckett was fined $75 for driving an unregistered vehicle and $50 for not having insurance.

Luckett said that while the fines hurt, the judicial system is a needed component of a civilized society.   

“You got to obey the rules. You can’t have all of these unregistered vehicles around here… society makes rules and regulations. If you don’t go by the rules and regulations, this would be like a war zone. It would be like the wild, wild west,” he said leaving court after paying his fine. 

Race, poverty and tickets

Police and local lawmakers have begun to address some of the city’s citation practices for minor, nonviolent infractions. Police officials have said they’ve made a concerted effort not to ticket for minor traffic offenses over the last few years, decreasing the overall number of tickets written by 46 percent from 2011 to 2014. In addition, the Milwaukee Common Council in June significantly slashed the fine for possessing a small amount of marijuana.  

"One of the issues that continues to come up is the injustice many people feel who live in communities that are overly policed and where ordinances and laws are stringently enforced," said Ald. Ashanti Hamilton, during a committee meeting regarding marijuana possession fines. "We have pretty much criminalized where you live and what you look like."

The intersection between race, poverty and the local judicial system has been a concern of the Justice Initiatives Institute, a local nonprofit organization, which recently published a report examining defendants who were jailed after they failed to appear in court and pay their fines.

The report examined the economic and demographic characteristics of defendants processed through Branch A, a courtroom in the county jail separate from the main court facility in the Milwaukee Police Department, from 2008 to 2013. It studied 26,000 defendants, most of whom were arrested on a municipal warrant after not paying a citation and spending two or three days in jail on each occasion, earning time served, which reduces the amount of money owed for a fine.

The study found about 85 percent never paid anything on their citations; about two-thirds of those jailed did not have a job. Of those who were employed, 40 percent worked low-paying jobs. Black men had seven times as many cases associated with citations as white men.  

“The trends in the unemployment rates in Milwaukee mirrored the trends in how people were appearing in our study. When the unemployment rates went up, the number of people in our study (who were taken into custody) was going up. So it’s linked to poverty,” said Marilyn Walczak a project coordinator at the Justice Initiatives Institute, who wrote the report with Pawasarat.

According to court officials, the city’s jailing policy changed in May 2012. Before the change, defendants for the most part were eligible to be released on a recognizance (signature) bond when the first warrant was issued for not paying their fines. When subsequent warrants were issued, they were held until they paid a cash bond. Now defendants are eligible for a signature bond the first three times they are taken into custody on a warrant for not paying their fines.  

“We are constantly reviewing our data and looking at what makes sense,” said Jane Islo, assistant court administrator. “For us, it’s a balance between not wanting to be holding people on municipal ordinance violations and yet maintaining some kind of accountability.” 
Walczak noted the policy change does not mean that more defendants are paying their fines, just that police are instructed not to jail them on the first three warrants associated with municipal citations. 

“If the defendant still does not appear in court, what have you gained?” she asked. “You’ve changed a policy that has reduced jail days, but some of these people used to get credit for time served and their fine was reduced. Now you are not getting time out of them, you’re not collecting money from them. So why bother writing the ticket?”

The practice of jailing defendants for failure to pay fines is costly. The city spent more than $10 million to jail the 26,000 defendants for not paying about $5.7 million they owed from 2008 to 2013, according to the report. 

The court itself earns a profit each year, according to a cost-benefit document drafted by the city’s budget office in November 2014. The document showed that the court earned a net of between $1.5 and $2.8 million each year from 2009 to 2013, although that does not take into account several direct and indirect costs such as expenses associated with paying for collections, bailiffs and city attorneys.

“Our revenue goes into the city’s general fund,” Islo said, noting that the money from citations helps fund city departments that do not generate revenue on their own.

The city’s Judiciary and Legislation Committee recently passed a resolution asking for the State of Wisconsin to allow the city to apply a surcharge on each municipal fine. The funds would pay to store data from police-worn body cameras, which officials expect to cost $1.7 million. 

“The people you are taking the money from… very often do not have the financial resources to pay their fines,” said Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, during the committee meeting.

State law allows for defendants to apply for an indigence determination and makes available community service and alternative sanctions rather than monetary penalties to those who cannot pay.

But very few defendants take advantage of these alternatives. In the impoverished 53206 ZIP code, only 723 defendants who received 41,900 citations from 2011 to 2014 were offered and agreed to alternative sanctions, according to court data obtained by NNS through an open records request. 

“I have seen instances in Milwaukee where people are not advised and … no effort is made to communicate with them about their ability to pay or alternatives [available] to them if they can’t pay,” said James Gramling, a former Milwaukee Municipal Court judge who helped rewrite the municipal court law in Wisconsin in 2009. 

Another sign that defendants do not know their rights is that only 994 of 434,463 citations written (.23 percent) were adjudicated in a court trial from 2011 to 2014. Part of the reason for this may be the wording on the citation itself, according to Walczak.

The citation doesn’t make it clear that defendants have the right to appear to contest the charge against them, added Walczak, who said that the local judicial process needs more transparency and explanation.

“When you are first given a ticket, it says that you don’t have to appear,” she said. “But what that means is that if you want to admit you’re wrong and pay the ticket, you don’t have to appear and you can just send your money in. But I don’t think people understand that.”

Walczak also blames the fact that there is no online form designated solely for defendants who want to apply for an indigence determination. There is a form to apply to make installment payments. In addition, an informational pamphlet available in court makes no mention of alternative sanctions for people who are indigent, although a third of the city’s residents live in poverty. 

Court officials “don’t take time to fairly and aggressively determine ability to pay. They put the burden of that on the defendant,” she said. “If the (defendant) doesn’t bring it up in court, they don’t bring it up.”


Editor's note: A previous version of this story indicated the 53204 ZIP code is on the North Side. It is on the South Side.


Despite the rampant poverty that grips Milwaukee’s inner city, citations that carry a relatively hefty fine are one of the city’s methods of choice to punish offenders for non-criminal infractions.

Effort to track case leads to ‘black hole’

A defendant holds a document for his case as he waits for court to begin. (Photo by Sue Vliet)

A woman wearing floral pants grabbed a knife from a drawer and threatened to slash the tires on a vehicle owned by her uncle, who eventually was able to take the weapon away from her, according to a Milwaukee Police call log on June 17.

The call log also showed the 20-year-old woman told authorities that her uncle slammed her on the floor and into the wall and held her chest.

Other than those two brief descriptions contained in the Milwaukee Police Department document, what actually went down on that sunny Tuesday afternoon in a nondescript two-story house on the North Side remains mostly unknown, despite numerous attempts to obtain more information about the incident, which resulted in at least one citation. 

As part of its reporting about Milwaukee’s Municipal Court, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service selected a random case to get a glimpse of how accessible court documents are to the public.   

The search for information about this case provides just one example of the murkiness about who is allowed access to documents such as police reports and narratives typically associated with citations, as well as when these documents are available to the public and the defendant.

The search began in the waiting area of the Municipal Court building, 951 N. James Lovell St., where a clerk at the service window said municipal judges control whether information about particular cases are made public.

Another clerk later said only the defendant or his or her attorney would be able to obtain details of a case, including the narrative written by police. “If the person does not have the opportunity to defend himself in court, then it is not an open record,” said the clerk, who tersely refused to give her name.

However, according to Collin Johnson, a legal consultant with the Milwaukee Police Department, “that’s not how the law works.” He said access to citations, narratives and police reports is dictated by Wisconsin’s open records law.

“Big picture… every government document is an open record subject to both exceptions and what’s call the balancing test,” Johnson said. “So there is no blanket rule that says something can or cannot be released.”

The balancing test requires police officials to weigh the public’s interest in the record being open against the public’s interest for it to be closed, according to Johnson.

Johnson added, “I think there was a miscommunication there… All of our clerks know very well that records are open to anyone.” He said that only in certain circumstances are records open only to the defendant.

“Family trouble”

Some 18 minutes after the woman wearing floral pants called 911, a “Family Trouble” entry appeared on the Milwaukee Police Department’s calls for service Web page along with the address, date and time of the incident.

Five days later, a Milwaukee police officer in District 5, where the incident took place, could only say that it “involved a knife” before he suggested asking the Milwaukee Police open records department about the case.

The officer said records regarding the case would be unavailable to the public until it goes to court and that a police narrative, which typically accompanies a citation, was unavailable at that time. The following day, a Milwaukee Police open records department clerk said the citation was unavailable.  

“Do you know these people?” the open records clerk asked, to which the reporter said “no.”  

The clerk said the citation would not be available to someone who did not know the people involved in the case. She did, however, give the reporter a one-and-a-half-page call log that contained the brief description of the incident and information about the people involved, including their names, phone numbers, addresses, genders and ages.

Johnson said that several factors may have made the citation unavailable — for example if the case involved a sensitive crime or if the record had not been reviewed by police supervisors. However, the relationship between the requestor and the defendant should have no bearing on whether the record is made available.   

“Typically, as soon as (a citation) is written and is sent to the city attorney, it is available as public records for anyone,” Johnson said. “The public can make a request for a citation written against anyone … against me, against you, against anyone.”

On July 8, an NNS reporter made another call to District 5 to find out the status of the citation, and again, an officer said the best way to find out was through the department’s open records office. During a call on the same day to the open records office, an official was able to provide a call log number and the name of the officer who responded to the call, but said that it was unclear whether a report was written.

On July 13, a reporter placed a phone call to the officer who responded to the incident and left a message for him regarding the case. He did not return the call. The quest for more information about the incident ended in vain on Aug. 31 when the fourth search in six weeks on the court’s website rendered nothing.

Black hole

Johnson said the effort to obtain information about the incident may have been hindered by the fact that all the requests were made verbally.  The law allows for public officials to deny verbal requests without any detail, while requiring them to give a written explanation for their denial if the request is made in writing, Johnson said.

During the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service’s attempt to obtain the record, no one asked for a written request.

This citation and thousands like it written by the Milwaukee Police Department travel through a four- to six-week bureaucratic black hole where public access to detailed information about incidents associated with citations is limited.

After a citation is written, it is converted to an electronic case file and sent to the city attorney’s office, where it is reviewed, according to Kurt Behling, assistant city attorney with the City of Milwaukee. "We then approve them for filing," he said. "Sometimes things need to be changed like (the officer) writes a trespassing ticket when it should be a loitering ticket."

Before the city attorney has had a chance to determine probable cause, police records and narratives are typically not open records, Johnson said.
“Records subject to a pending investigation can be denied,” Johnson said. None of the clerks NNS approached to obtain records about the case said they were unavailable because of a pending investigation.

The broad intention is for the public to have as much access to records as possible, according to Johnson.  “I don’t think people understand (the law), but it’s a highly nuanced law,” he said. “It’s important that the public have access to records, but it’s also important that records that are sensitive are protected.”

Devi Shastri contributed to this article.


Defendants who can’t afford attorneys pay a steep price

By Brendan O'Brien

November 12, 2015

Most defendants go to Milwaukee Municipal Court without an attorney. (Photo by Sue Vliet)

Peter Starck faced thousands of dollars in fines and restitution after he was given a citation by Milwaukee police, who accused him of destroying a downtown hotel room in December 2014.

Instead of going it alone in Milwaukee Municipal Court, the 48-year-old was able to find a lawyer to fight the vandalism charge, resulting in the dismissal of his case eight months later.

"The little guy doesn't have a chance" without a lawyer in municipal court,” he said. "There are a zillion reasons why people should get an attorney. It saved me thousands of dollars and then if I didn’t have the money to pay, I would have gone to jail.”

Starck is one of very few defendants who have enjoyed legal representation in the Milwaukee Municipal Court. Of the 434,463 citations written from 2011 to 2014, defendants had attorneys in only 2 percent of cases and far fewer than 1 percent were taken to trial.

The percentage of defendants with attorneys was significantly smaller for cases in poor neighborhoods. For example, in the 53206 ZIP code, one of the poorest in Milwaukee, lawyers were involved in only 231 (.6 percent) of the cases and only 91 (.2 percent) were taken to trial of the 41,900 citations written between 2011 and 2014.

In that same time period, fewer than one out of every 10 cases (8 percent) without an attorney were dismissed, while more than half of the cases (57 percent) involving an attorney were successfully defended, according to data from the court.

A defendant without an attorney in municipal court is at a huge disadvantage because he does not know the law or court procedures and he will miss holes in the prosecutor’s case that most attorneys would catch and exploit, according to local legal experts.

However, defendants said hiring a lawyer is a risky proposition, even if they claimed they were innocent. For example, a lawyer’s fee of $200 on top of a possible $200 fine doubles the cost of the case. For a defendant who works full time making $7.25 an hour, the minimum wage, that $400 in legal fees and fines if they lose their case represents more than a week’s pay. 

“Many people just can’t afford to get their own lawyer,” said Don Williams, 24, as he walked out of the Milwaukee Municipal Court after paying the last of $1,900 he owed in fines on several cases in which he did not have a lawyer

Some defendants said that having a lawyer in municipal court is self-incriminating.

“There’s an aspect of guilt associated with having a lawyer,” a young college student who declined to give his name said as he waited alone for his case to be heard by a judge. “There is a chance of a case getting dismissed, but a lot of people here I’m guessing can’t imagine paying a lawyer.”  

Some defendants were unaware of their rights, saying they were not allowed to have a lawyer because their case was too minor, while others said it was not worth the overall hassle to hire someone to represent them.

“The cost of getting a lawyer would have been more than what my ticket is,” said Sharon Williams, 44, as she left the court after agreeing to pay a $150 fine. “I would rather just pay the ticket to get the court off my back.” 

More access for defense attorneys

In general, defense attorneys have much more access to city attorneys than defendants without attorneys. This access allows attorneys to negotiate deals for their clients. For instance, when city attorneys are prosecuting a case, they are obligated to return calls and emails from a defense attorney, said Christopher Ehrfurth, a lawyer who defends clients in the Milwaukee Municipal Court system, as he exited the court building.    

“If you are an attorney and send another attorney an email about a case, they generally are going to have to respond to it or they are going to have a problem in court,” said Ehrfurth, noting that municipal court judges will admonish prosecutors who do not communicate with defense attorneys. “If you are just a person that doesn’t have any knowledge of that system, you probably won’t even have (the prosecutor’s) email and probably won’t even be able to find their email address.”

Municipal court is fundamentally different than other courts in that it allows judges to advocate for a defendant who does not have a lawyer, according to Municipal Court Judge Derek Mosley. For example, in circuit court where more serious cases are adjudicated, judges are generally barred by law from talking directly to defendants without counsel present.

“That’s part of my job,” said Mosley, who added that defendants with lawyers do better in court, but realizes that they are typically out of financial reach for many defendants. “What’s great about here is that I can have conversations with defendants and ask them questions ... (you) truly get your day in court.”

When he feels the defendant has not thoroughly questioned a witness on the stand, Mosley will step in and ask questions himself. He also allows defendants to take the stand and just tell their story, giving defendants much more legal leeway than city attorneys.

“Things that I allow (defendants) to do, I would never allow (city) attorneys to do because they know better,” he said. “I protect defendants.” 

In and out

A man in a suit entered the packed waiting area at the Milwaukee Municipal Court. He quickly found his client, a middle-aged Hispanic man wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and cheerfully said hello. He placed a case folder on a shelf attached to a pillar in the middle of the loud, crowded room. They huddled over the folder, softly discussing the case.

Moments later, the pair strolled down the center aisle of the bustling courtroom. They passed dozens of defendants without attorneys, who glared at them as they arranged themselves on the hard wooden benches for the long wait to eventually see the judge.

The judge sat perched above the courtroom, waiting for the lawyer and his client to make their way to the front. The judge and attorney scheduled a trial date. Then, as quickly as the attorney and his client arrived, they were gone.

The ability to move rapidly through the municipal court system is a luxury for defendants who can afford a lawyer, while those too poor to pay for representation experience a much slower court system.  

“We put the attorneys first,” said Vincent Bobot, a former city attorney and municipal court judge who continues to practice law in Milwaukee, handling immigration, traffic, family and various general law matters. “The reason why attorneys are going first is because otherwise we would have no attorneys in the system at all.”

Bobot believes that the court sorely lacks representation for defendants, but doesn’t favor public funding for defense attorneys in municipal court. 

“You have to have attorneys there to check the power of the state, otherwise the police have total control,” Bobot said.

If city attorneys “have to go against someone who is prepared and knows how the system works, then they’re going to be more likely to say, ‘I’m going to give you this deal so I don’t have to deal with you,’” added Ehrfurth.

Ultimately though many defendants just do not have enough money to pay for legal representation and, as a result, do not get the justice they deserve, Ehrfurth said. “They can’t afford us,” he said. “It’s really sad to see how money prevents people from getting fair outcomes.”  

The public can make a request for a citation written against anyone ... against me, against you, against anyone.

— Collin Johnson, legal consultant with the Milwaukee Police Department

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