Below is a summary of what I witnessed at LaGrange’s municipal court the afternoon of Tuesday, March 10, 2009.
# of Latino immigrants with pending charges: 6
# of Latino immigrants whose only charge was driving without a license: 5
What were the charges of the sixth immigrant?: Driving without a license and driving without a seatbelt.
How did the immigrants plead?: 5 pleaded guilty as charged and 1 requested his case be bound over to State Court.
Why did the one immigrant request his case be bound over to State Court?: I have no way of knowing as I was unable to ask the gentleman. However, two possible motives come to mind.
First, the defendant may have wanted a public defender. In municipal court the process for obtaining a public defender is rather difficult; there’s a thick application that must be correctly completed along with income tax returns which must be filed. Consequently, in my nearly two years of accompanying immigrants to court I’ve only seen the public defender represent a handful of defendants and never a Latino immigrant. On the other hand, in State Court the process for applying for a public defender is more friendly to the indigent it’s designed to assist. The application is a simple two-page form and check stubs can be sufficient forms of income verification.
The second motive could have been finance-related. By requesting his case be bound over, the immigrant, by default, received an extension on trying to save for the hefty fine that likely awaits. Also, by transfering to State Court, the immigrant may have also saved over $300 as the municipal court fine for driving without a license tends is higher for immigrants as compared to State Court.
So how much did the immigrants pay for driving without a license in municipal court? The five immigrants who pleaded guilty each paid a fine of $1037 (this includes additional fees and court costs). In total, the court collected $5185 in a single day of fines for ticketing unlicenseable drivers. This was a fairly average day (and does not include the morning bench trials), so if you multiplied this times 52 weeks (court holds weekly sessions) you could estimate that in 2009 the city of LaGrange will collect over $269,000 from unlicenseable immigrants.
Were there any non-immigrants ticketed for driving without a license? Well, yes and no. First of all, I was unable to attend the entire court session so I cannot speak for everyone who literally filled the courtroom but I did witness one Anglo-American who was fined for driving without a license. I say “yes and no” because the original charge against this indidividual was for driving with a suspended license, meaning that this person had some committed some earlier moving violation(s) that resulted in his license being suspended. But, accompanied by a private attorney, this man made a plea bargain with the solicitor that was approved by the judge and the charge was lowered to the offense of “driving without a license.”
Well, that person’s fine was also $987, right? No, it was lower. The American who had lost the privilege to drive but could afford to hire a private attorney paid $727 for the same charge as the five Latino immigrants. A $260 difference.
Why were the immigrants charged so much more? That’s the $1,300 question ($260 x five immigrants).