In August 2015 I teamed up with two awesome lawyers (Ray Flavin and James Kelly) and filed a class-action lawsuit against the McHenry County Clerk of the Circuit court. Our beef was with the way court costs were tacked onto fines in criminal courts. Most of the “costs” the clerks added after the judge set the fines were, in fact, not costs- they were fines. Because of this when you were told what the fines were by the judge, you stepped away with absolutely no idea what the actual total would be.
Us vs. The World.
Bringing the suit as a class-action was tricky. We’d have liked to sue the judges, but you’re not allowed to do that. We had to sue the clerk because the clerk was the only person we were permitted to sue.
The clerk didn’t sign the sentencing order specifying that “court costs” should be paid, though. The clerk also was also doing what she was ordered through various (confusing) state laws and administrative orders
Plus bringing a class-action lawsuit when your “class” of defendants is convicted criminals is never politically popular. Some might call it crazy.
I couldn’t give a damn about that, but it certainly does stack the deck against you.
How Much Money Are We Going To Get Back?
Many people have asked what’s going on with the class-action suit now.
We filed in Federal court in Rockford. Before the first motion had even been argued every criminal courtroom in McHenry County had changed the way it dealt with costs. The clerk had purchased a fleet of brand-new printers and would print a sheet outlining the total cost of fines plus (what they called) fees- complete with an automated judges signature printed on the form as well.
It really wasn’t how things should be done, but it was better. More importantly, it was an official sign that our suit had teeth. The clerk spent a lot of money and it disrupted “business as usual” in every courtroom. That’s a win in itself.
So, How Much Money?
Not long after, we heard that the Supreme Court of Illinois had started a commission to look into the issue of court costs. Who did they tap to be part of the commission? The McHenry County Clerk of the Circuit Court.
Funny how that works.
I’m not saying we caused the Supreme Court to form the commission. There has been a small-scale war brewing over court costs for some time (mostly in the 4th District). Our issue was new, however. The way McHenry County was assessing fees as a practice was different than anywhere else. It was not a coincidence that the clerk ended up with a voice in the matter.
So, We’re Getting Millions Back, Right?
By 2016 court costs and fees had caught the attention of the Illinois State Bar Association. Writing first about how fees and costs were rising too fast and then, over the next three years, a series of articles about the imposition of fees and proposed regulation of fees.
Then, a crazy thing happened in 2019. Effective March 1, 2019, the Supreme Court passed rule 452. Rule 452 requires a sentencing judge to enter an order “imposing the sentence and all applicable fines, fees, assessments, and costs against the defendant and specifying applicable credits.”
Rule 452 clearly tries to end the days of not knowing what you owe on a case when you step away from the bench after your sentence has been pronounced- exactly what we complained about in our class-action suit.
And, the Action Coming Back Our Way On That Is What, Exactly?
We won. You won. The criminally accused won. Not just a spiritual or moral victory, either. A real making-changes-in-the-way-courts-across-the-entire-state-can-operate victory. The Supreme Court agrees with us. Game over.
That’s it. If you want to know what happened with our class-action lawsuit, read rule 452. There is now a supreme court rule telling judges they can’t do what we said they could not do. We were and are right. If you were a part of the “class” we thank you for your participation.
What did we end up getting out of it? The satisfaction of knowing that our “outside the box thinking” was on the mark. That we weren’t crazy. That we were right despite the government fighting us every step of the way in court.
You want to know how much money we made? Look, you spend money and it’s gone. You pick up the Illinois criminal code from now until eternity and that rule will be there.
You can thank us later.