Little Rock traffic judge Vic Fleming's procedure for assessing fees on people who paid their fines on the installment plan violated the Arkansas Constitution's due-process protections for those individuals, a nearly unanimous Pulaski County jury ruled Thursday.
How much the city will be required to pay is up to Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, who will decide the damages, plus legal fees and expenses during a separate proceeding that has yet to be scheduled.
Plaintiff LaDonna Nelson sued the city in May of 2014, complaining that she had been forced to pay $30 in installment fees on top of a $115 speeding fine, even though she paid the fine less than a month after it was imposed.
The fine was incurred by Nelson's 16-year-old son who had signed up to pay the penalty on a three-month installment plan. The $10-per-month installment fee was set by the Legislature; $7.50 of it returns to the state. The remaining $2.50 goes into a technology fund for the traffic court.
LaDonna Nelson's class-action suit seeks restitution for the installment fees she and every other early payer of fines incurred over a three-year period from May 12, 2011 -- three years before her lawsuit was filed -- to July 11, 2014, when the fee procedure was abolished.
Her lawyers, Tim Steadman and Jerry Garner, told the judge during the two-day trial that they believe 13,259 people are eligible for refunds, citing records provided by the city. About 22,000 people go through the court every year.
Jurors deliberated about three hours before returning their 11-1 verdict in favor of Nelson, a 50-year-old married mother of two who claimed that Fleming's manner of assessing the fees violated the Arkansas Civil Rights Act because she had no way to effectively contest the payments.
The judge dismissed her complaint that the fee was an illegal exaction of public money before the trial.
In civil suits, the litigant needs only a nine-member majority of jurors to prevail. However, the 11-1 final verdict was something of a surprise.
Jurors had first reported to the judge that they had reached a decision after about 90 minutes of deliberations. But the verdict they returned with, in favor of the city, was endorsed by only seven jurors, so the judge sent the jurors back to deliberate further until they could reach at least the required nine-member majority. About 90 minutes later, jurors returned with the 11-1 vote for Nelson.
Fleming was not a party in the lawsuit, but to prove to jurors that the installment-fee procedure was illegal, Nelson had to show that the fees had been improperly assessed and that Fleming was acting as a policymaker for the city when he established that procedure.
Her lawyers said the way Fleming imposed the fees, by using a court order that required the payment of fines and fees together, was illegal. Nelson's attorney called the manner in which Fleming imposed the fees a "perversion" of the law that allows installment payments.
The law clearly states that the court can impose installment fees only as long as the fine is unpaid, Steadman told the jury in his closing argument. He called on the nine women and three men to reject arguments by the city's lawyers that Nelson should have done more to have the fees waived before filing her lawsuit.
Jurors should also disregard claims by the city that Nelson was misinformed about having to pay the $30 fees because she went to the wrong cashier, Steadman said.
"Everyone who paid early paid too much," he said. "This case epitomized everything people had about government. Basically, the city says it can rip off Mrs. Nelson because she went to the wrong [payment] window. The government can't charge you too much money, then only have to pay you back when you complain."
Deputy City Attorney Rick Hogan told jurors that Nelson had agreed to pay the fees when her son signed up for the installment plan. He said Nelson had avenues available to contest the fees, including asking the judge to set them aside or appealing the case, but she chose to sue instead.
He told jurors the city should not be held responsible for the way Fleming runs his court. Elected state district judges like Fleming do not work for the city, Hogan said. Neither is traffic court a department of the city, he told jurors.
The city subsidizes a portion of the judge's salary and pays his staff only because the law requires it, but no city official could fire or discipline Fleming, Hogan said. The city cannot even force him to submit to a performance evaluation, he said.
The city does not get any part of the installment fees, he said. The $2.50 portion left after the state takes its cut goes into a fund that is solely controlled by the judge, Hogan told jurors.
Fleming, testifying on Wednesday, told jurors that he did not intend to flatly impose installment fees and that he would have reduced them if Nelson had asked. He said his regular practice during his 21 years as a judge has been to seriously reconsider any request to reduce the penalties he imposes.
Fleming said his order was written to make sure that people knew exactly how much they would have to pay and when the money would be due.
Metro on 08/03/2018
Print Headline: Jurors decide Little Rock judge's ticket-paying method illegal