N.B. Review of this decision was granted by the Michigan Supreme Court, which heard oral argument in mid-November.
Defendant brought an appeal of right asking whether the payment of court costs is an unconstitutional tax. Defendant was convicted of assault to do great bodily harm less than murder. His sentence included $1611 in court fines and fees. Defendant argued that the imposition of court fines and fees is a tax, violated the separation of powers doctrine, and failed to comply with the Distinct Statement Clause.
Imposition of court fines and fees is a tax. A charge is a tax if its purpose is to generate revenue, it is proportionate to the related costs and services, and the payor does not have the ability to limit the use of the service. It is a tax because it generates revenue disproportionate to the services provided, and because it benefits the public and not the payor. Even though the statute allowing the imposition of the court fines and fees fails to use the word tax, it is a tax because the statute’s purpose to generate revenue is clear. However, the statute does not violate the Separation of Power doctrine because the doctrine allows the Legislature to delegate its power of taxation when it provides guidelines and standards. The court had a factual basis to determine the costs so it was constitutional.
You can read the trial court’s decision here.
This case is related to People v. Cunningham, 852 N.W. 2d 118 (2014) which held that costs could be imposed by courts only if the Legislature specifically authorized them and that the Legislature had not done so.