City attorney’s office seeks reimbursement from drunks

June 1, 2010
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Acting on authority provided through the Michigan Code of Criminal Procedure, Grand Rapids city commissioners pushed forward an ordinance last week that would allow the city to collect a monetary reimbursement from every person convicted of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The reimbursement could also be sought from anyone under the age of 21 that is convicted of driving with any blood alcohol content and from all commercial vehicle operators whose blood-alcohol content exceeds half of the state’s legal limit of .08.

“Imposition of a $225 per person charge by the city of Grand Rapids on the 700 individuals arrested annually by GRPD (assuming convictions) would result in a potential recovery to the city of $157,000 per year,” said assistant city attorney Margaret Bloemers.

But Bloemers indicated that the final reimbursement charge is likely to be closer to $300, as $225 doesn’t cover the cost of a city attorney involved in such a case. She said the ordinance should set an average cost rather than a specific charge per case because cases that go to trial are more costly and a reimbursement based on that scenario could keep someone charged with an offense from going to trial.

“The city’s average cost per incident likely is $300 or more when all of the costs recoverable by statute are included. If the city successfully collected $300 in the 500 cases it prosecutes in the district court alone, it would recover $150,000,” added Bloemers, who also is the police department’s legal advisor and the city’s director of civil litigation.

Bloemers noted that this type of case usually takes four to eight hours in court plus preparation time, and the minimum cost to the city for prosecution is about $160 just in attorney wages. She said it also costs the city roughly $80 in police officer wages to respond to an incident. City attorneys prosecute about 500 of these cases each year in the city’s district court. Other cases are prosecuted in the county’s circuit court.

“The state statute actually authorizes the city to recoup its costs,” she said.

Bloemers plans to return to the commission in two weeks with an exact reimbursement fee, and city commissioners are expected to vote on the ordinance then. City Attorney Catherine Mish and Grand Rapids Police Chief Kevin Belk supported the ordinance.

Also last week, the city attorney’s office moved to end its legal services agreement with the Grand Rapids Housing Commission — a contract that has been in place since the commission was established in 1966. Mish has been asked to reduce her department’s personnel costs by $92,000 for the fiscal year that begins July 1, resulting in some staff attorneys being let go.

Providing legal service to the housing commission is not mandated by the city charter, state statute, or federal law. The city’s Fiscal Committee, which is staffed by three city commissioners, authorized ending the 44-year-old relationship last week.

“It’s a good service, a good organization,” said Mish. “It’s my understanding the housing commission has a law firm on retainer — Rhoades McKee.”

Mish said her office mostly handled evictions for the housing commission and performed about $13,000 worth of services for the organization each year.

At the same time, the Fiscal Committee authorized a three-year extension of the legal agreement the city attorney’s office has had with private law firm Clark Hill PLC. In the contract, the 2010 charge of $195 per hour that the city pays Clark Hill would remain in effect for 2011. The per-hour rate would rise to $200 in 2012 and to $210 in 2013. In contrast, Mish said the firm’s top rate can run as high as $300 an hour.

“This pricing would result in an average increase of less than 1.3 percent over the first two years of the contract, and an average of about 2.5 percent per year over the entire three-year contract,” said Mish. “These are very competitive market rates for the attorneys in the firm of Clark Hill PLC, and the rates are significantly below what the firm charges other clients.”

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