|Legal Opinion: |
Text of Document: December 13, 2007
Re: software financing
Dear Court Clerk,
Rex Barton asked me to respond to your email inquiry, as he is on leave for the holidays. You ask how the City may pay for new court software, and whether a $10.00 charge may be levied per ticket for these purposes.
The answer is no, but there are other methods for raising such funds. There is no authority for municipal courts to charge "technology fees," or other such charges. There is some flexibility, however, in setting court costs. The Municipal Court Reform Act provides that the governing body must set court costs by ordinance. T.C.A. ' 16-18-304. The court costs set by the governing body only apply to cases for violation of City ordinances, and do not apply when the Court is exercising concurrent, general sessions jurisdiction. T.C.A. ' 16-18-304(b). In those criminal cases, the Court must charge costs in the amount set by statute for general sessions courts. There is no authority for a municipal court exercising city ordinance jurisdiction to assess an additional fee on top of court costs, so it is advisable to merely ask the governing body for an increase in the amount of court costs charged, and obtain a new ordinance increasing that amount for city ordinance violations.
When exercising general sessions jurisdiction, the costs which are charged are set by state law, at T.C.A. ' 8-21-401(g). That amount is currently $62.00 for criminal actions, and $42.00 for traffic citations. This same statute requires that general sessions courts, and city courts with concurrent jurisdiction, earmark $2 received in each case in which the general filing fee/court costs are charged for "computer hardware purchases or replacement." T.C.A. ' 8- 21-401(j). Note that this is not an additional fee, added to the $62 or $42 costs charged, but is rather taken from those amounts. There is no authority for a court exercising general sessions jurisdiction to increase the amount of costs charged above that required by this statute.
There is some authority found in the Public Records Act for counties to recoup costs for computerizing county records, including court records. Under this law, those counties which establish a County Public Records Commission may, through ordinance, levy an additional $2 charge on all filings of public records. T.C.A. ' 10-7-408. This is applied to some city courts exercising general sessions jurisdiction, in the form of a "technology fee," but is not used for the benefit of those courts as the funds are sent to the county.
Based on my research, I have not found authority for the City to set up a $10 per ticket charge to finance this software purchase. However, the City may act to simply increase court costs to fund the purchase, and there is no requirement that the costs be lowered once the bill is paid. I must caution the City, however, to not profit to a great extent from the increased court costs. We hear generally about raising court costs in numerous cities across the state, and the General Assembly has expressed some interest in setting caps or limits on city court costs through statute. If too many cities charge higher costs than are needed to fund their operations, it will get the attention of our legislators and they may take action to limit city court costs in the future.
In my opinion, the software purchase may be funded by an increase in court costs generally, obtained through an ordinance passed by your governing body.
I hope this answers your question. Let me know if you have additional questions or need more information.
Melissa A. Ashburn
cc: Rex Barton