Calling them abusive and unaccountable, the ACLU of Ohio wants the state's mayor's courts to be reformed and some in Summit and several other urban counties abolished.

The ACLU released a report this week that the group says shows ways in which mayor's courts lack transparency and can be used as tools to generate revenue instead of administer justice.

Mayor's courts handle traffic violations and low-level misdemeanors, disproportionately impacting people from minority and low-income communities, perpetuating inequalities present across the rest of the criminal justice system, according to the ACLU.

In Ohio, there are just under 300 mayor's courts operating in 64 of its 88 counties, the report says.

"What I found is a broken system that harms many Ohioans and has the most unjust consequences for low income and black Ohioans," Sri Thakkilapati, a senior policy researcher for the ACLU of Ohio and the report's main author, said at a Columbus news conference.

Cuyahoga Falls was one of two case studies included in the report, which alleges Falls police "disproportionately" issue more citations in the poorer, southeastern area of the city, which the ACLU says is a historically working-class area, than in the wealthier, northwestern area. 

According to the report, black people make up 3.7 percent of the city's population, but 17 percent of citations were issued to black people. White people make up 91.9 percent of the city's population, and 67.4 percent of citations were issued to white people. The citation data for the city was for all citations issued between September and November 2017. The percent of citations issued to Cuyahoga Falls residents compared to nonresidents is unknown, according to the report.

The report also says police issue many tickets to motorists driving on Interstate 76, suggesting the thoroughfare generates municipal revenue, but I-76 doesn't run through Cuyahoga Falls. Based on the map in the report, the group is likely referring to state Route 8, which does run through the Falls. Many of the stops on the map are located near Route 8.

"The map listed in the report should be viewed through the lens of traffic density. There is a higher rate of traffic in the southern region of the city,” Cuyahoga Falls Police Captain Steve Guldeman said in a prepared statement. “The map encompasses state Route 8 and the Howe Avenue area that is more commercial and one of our most highly trafficked regions in the city where most traffic incidents occur.”

The ACLU, which analyzed data from 2016 and 2017, levies two main criticisms against mayor's courts: a profit-making incentive and a lack of transparency and oversight.

Defenders of mayor's courts say they are beneficial because they give municipalities more control over what happens within their jurisdiction.

Karen Sheffer, an attorney who the runs the mayor's court in Groveport and trains magistrates across the state, said mayor's courts are unfairly criticized.

Mayor's courts issue arrest warrants and suspend driver's licenses in the same way as municipal courts do, she said. The ACLU report was critical of both practices, saying they're harsh punishments for the type of violations they represent.

Ohio and Louisiana are the only two states in the country that have mayor's courts, the report said. Yet Sheffer said some states have something similar called community courts.

The profit-making incentive of mayor's courts, the report says, is rooted in how closely affiliated the mayors are to both a city's operating budget and its police department. In cases where mayors don't directly run the court, they appoint a magistrate, who typically is a lawyer or a retired judge.

The report says there are two main indicators as to whether police departments are behaving in a way that prioritizes making money: They write a large amount of tickets relative to the number of officers and issue multiple citations per traffic stop.

The ACLU found 51 Ohio municipalities with mayor's courts in 2016 in which police officers wrote an average of at least 100 traffic tickets. Officers in those 51 places wrote an average of 35.8 tickets per 100 residents — 436 percent greater than officer citation rates in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Akron.

It's unlikely that drivers in those municipalities committed infractions at such a starkly different rate, the report says, suggesting that "police resources were used to generate municipal revenue through issuing traffic citations."

Unlike municipal courts, most mayor's courts also do not document their proceedings through a recording or official transcript, indicating a lack of transparency, the report says.

While the ACLU report said it didn't know of any courts that recorded its proceedings, Sheffer said Groveport and Hilliard both do.

The report lists five recommendations to the Ohio General Assembly:

• Increase local government funding, which the ACLU says would help diminish the need for cities and villages to support their operating budgets through fines and court fees

• Eliminate mayor's courts in Franklin, Cuyahoga, Hamilton and Summit counties, which the civil-liberties group says contain most of the "profit-seeking" and racially unequal courts

• Mandate that mayor's courts keep comprehensive records in order to boost accountability

• Abolish driver's license suspensions for reasons that don't threaten public safety

• Increase education and training for those overseeing and conducting mayor's courts

While previous attempts at changing Ohio's system of mayor's courts have been made, the problems remain and can't be ignored, Thakkilapati said.

"We must make these reforms now," she said.

 

Beacon Journal reporter Emily Mills contributed to this report. Contact Columbus Dispatch reporter Kevin Stankiewicz at kstankiewicz@dispatch.com or @kevin_stank.