Sunday, March 2, 2014

Muncie City Judge Issues Arrest Warrant on 22 Year Old Fine

The Muncie Star Press reports:
It's been a long time -- more than 22 years, to be exact -- since Jay Hart, at the time a 19-year-old Frankfort resident, came to Muncie for a day of fun.

Too much fun, as it turned out. After visiting a local skate park, Hart attended a party near the Ball State University campus. His resulting intoxication would end with his arrest at a Muncie skating rink.

The teenager pleaded guilty in Muncie City Court back in 1992 to illegal consumption of alcohol, and over the ensuing decades, his misadventures in Muncie were largely forgotten.

Until Feb. 11, that is. That's the day City Court Judge Dianna Bennington, elected to the bench 20 years after Hart's local prosecution, issued a warrant for his arrest, alleging he had failed to pay a related fine and court costs, then totaling $150, in 1992.

"To walk out to my mailbox and find a warrant for my arrest, it really aggravates me," Hart told The W/R Report last week. "I'm a 41-year-old dad, and I run a business."

Hart maintains he paid his fine and court costs -- in cash -- within a few months of his February 1992 sentencing by then-City Court Judge Linda Ralu Wolf. Nearly 22 years later, however, he hasn't retained any receipt of that payment.

It should be noted Wolf was apparently never informed of that payment. She issued failure-to-pay warrants for Hart's arrest seven times between October 1992 and May 1998. At the time Bennington issued her own warrant last month, no action had been taken in the case for more than 15 years.

Hart maintains that far too much time has passed to expect him to be able to produce proof of his payment -- or to put him at risk of being jailed, on Bennington's warrant, should he be pulled over for a minor traffic infraction.

The normal collection statute of limitations is 10 years.  Although there doesn't appear to be a statute of limitations on a court collecting on an unpaid fine, basic principles of due process would suggest that 22 years is too late to be engaging in collection efforts.  To expect someone to keep a receipt for more than two decades is not realistic.
I talked to Mr. Hart and am in fact quoted in the article which, unfortunately, is behind a pay wall.  Hart said when he called the court, he said he was told by court staffers that they were instructed by the judge to go through old files to try to find fines that were not shown as being paid.   The reporter was not able to get confirmation of this practice before reporting what happened to Hart.

Unfortunately the local attorneys in Muncie were all afraid of speaking out about what happened to Mr. Hart.  While they may fear reprisals in Judge Bennington's court, probably a bigger part of the reluctance is the Disciplinary Commission's aggressive enforcement of Rule 8.2 to charge attorneys who dare to criticize judges.  Yet if the Muncie City Court is issuing arrest warrants on decades old fines, it would be an outrageous practice that attorneys should be publicly condemning.  Attorneys are natural whistleblowers when it comes to the judicial branch and when they are silenced the public, people like Mr. Hart, pay a price.

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