Woman files class-action lawsuit against Missoula over “illegal” municipal court fees

A lawsuit filed this week by a Ravalli County woman contends that Missoula Municipal Court has illegally imposed a $25 surcharge on various cases. The Montana Supreme Court has ruled that surcharge illegal. Pictured is Missoula Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

A Ravalli County woman filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Missoula this week, arguing it has illegally assessed a $25 surcharge as part of sentencing in Missoula Municipal Court for the past five years.

If the suit is successful, it would seek to recover more than $500,000 in court-imposed surcharges and pass that back to thousands of violators sentenced in Missoula Municipal Court over the last five years.

In documents filed Wednesday by Worden Thane P.C. in Missoula District Court, Christina Johnson cited this week’s Montana Supreme Court ruling, which found that Missoula Municipal Court exceeded its authority by imposing the surcharge during sentencing in a separate case.

Johnson also was assessed that surcharge as part of her own plea for careless driving. That $25 fee was based on a Missoula City Council resolution adopted in 2013, which increased municipal court administrative fees and charges for processing citations and complaints.

“Therefore, since sometime in 2013, the City of Missoula has been illegally collecting the $25 surcharge from every person who was convicted or has pleaded guilty of any misdemeanor criminal charge or traffic violation,” Johnson’s lawsuit contends.

The city of Missoula was reviewing the case and wasn’t immediately prepared to comment.

Jesse Kodadek, an attorney with Worden Thane who’s representing Johnson, said Thursday the class-action suit looks to represent all violators who have paid the $25 municipal court surcharge in Missoula over the past five years.

Those offenses range from misdemeanor charges to traffic violations.

“It means our client is seeking to represent every person who has paid the same illegal surcharges to Missoula Municipal Court since the resolution was enacted in 2013,” Kodadek told the Missoula Current on Thursday. “It costs $120 to file a lawsuit, so it’s just not economical for one person to try and recover $25 the city collected illegally, which is why we’re seeking to do it on behalf of everyone who paid it.”

Johnson’s case stems from Tuesday’s decision by the state’s high court in a case involving Corinne Marie Louise Franklin. Franklin paid the court’s $25 surcharge after pleading no contest to disorderly conduct.

But Franklin moved to strike that surcharge, arguing that the city had no statutory authority to include it in her sentence. Municipal Court denied her motion and Missoula District Court affirmed the Municipal Court’s order.

The Montana Supreme Court, however, reversed that District Court decision this week. In doing so, it found the $25 surcharge illegal and ordered Missoula Municipal Court to stop collecting it.

“The state has allowed these municipal courts to collect a surcharge of a certain amount and keep that to fund the city attorney’s office,” Kodadek said. “The city decided in 2013 that what the Legislature had set for a surcharge was insufficient, so it imposed its own surcharge. They went beyond the powers delegated to a local government.”

Kodadek was uncertain how many people have paid the surcharge imposed by Missoula Municipal Court over the past five years. He said more than 10,000 criminal cases go before the court every year, though it’s not yet known how many of those included the surcharge.

“I did hear an estimate from somebody who might know that it might it be in excess of $100,000 a year,” Kodadek said.