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Why Does a DUI at the Maricopa County Justice Court Cost So Much?

Getting a DUI is not going down in anyone’s books as being a great experience. But what if getting a DUI from Officer A had worse consequences than getting that same DUI from Officer B in the same city? What if you had to pay thousands of dollars more if Officer A arrests you?

Welcome to the Maricopa County Justice Courts.

In the recent article “More Offenders Get Home-Detention Option” by Megan Cassidy, the relatively new method of home detention-electronic monitoring as a sentencing option for DUI convictions and its larger impact on overall jail fees and jurisdiction budgets is examined. It seems that with more jurisdictions in Maricopa County allowing home detention in lieu of or in cooperation with traditional jail time, the result is fewer people spending their time in facilities like Tent City—and the cost of doing time in Tent City is increasing in response to that. “By fiscal 2015, the cost to cities to house an inmate at a county jail will increase by 3.7 percent from this year to $81.85 per day.” These jail costs are part of the fines that a defendant has to pay, but they’re typically assessed to the city. Often, a defendant can’t pay all of those fines. “According to the Maricopa County Department of Finance, approximately 11 percent of jail costs are recuperated through billing cities and other jurisdictions for reimbursement.” The taxpayers of Maricopa County help with the rest of that balance.

In response to the burden on defendants and taxpayers alike, cities including Phoenix, Peoria, Glendale, Scottsdale, and Tempe have all adopted home detention-electronic monitoring as an alternative to jail. Cassidy notes that “electronic monitoring costs are paid for by the defendants, ranging from $10 to $30 a day depending on the court.” On the high end, the cost per day is over $50 less than in the county jails. Also, unlike doing time at Tent City with work release (where a person is released for 12 unsupervised hours per day and spends the other 12 hours in custody), electronic monitoring uses a GPS tracker, pre-approved work and errands schedule, curfew, and random alcohol testing throughout the day to keep a person in compliance.

Curiously, the Maricopa County Justice Courts do not permit electronic monitoring; jail ordered by judges in the justice courts must be completed in a county facility. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is strongly opposed to electronic monitoring and believes that “jail time is a better deterrent against driving drunk.” He also has the ignorant belief that hard-working people on electronic monitoring hang out, “watch porno (and) get drunk.” If someone on electronic monitoring tested positive for alcohol—even mouthwash—he or she could end up back in court for violating the terms of electronic monitoring and be ordered to finish the sentence in the county facilities.

So how exactly does a DUI charge get filed in a justice court? If a person is pulled over by a sheriff’s office deputy or by a Department of Public Safety officer, the case ends up in a Valley justice court. If a person is pulled over by a city police officer, the case typically ends up filed in that city’s court. The article notes that there were 9,532 DUI charges filed in the justice courts last year.

Here’s a quick cost breakdown examining the disparity of the cost between a DUI in the justice courts versus a city. On a first time, super-extreme DUI (BAC of .20 or higher) with a mandatory minimum sentence of 45 days’ jail? $3,683.25—which is three months’ worth of many mortgage payments. In Scottsdale, the court has required 9 days to be served in the county jail, and the remaining 36 days on home detention, at a much lower total cost of approximately $1816.65. The jail sentence for the justice court case is twice as much as the city case.

Imagine the real-life impact of this disparity. John and Sarah meet up for dinner in Phoenix, share two bottles of wine, and then as each is driving home, are pulled over on suspicion of DUI a few blocks away from one another in Phoenix. The only difference on that night is that John is pulled over by a Phoenix police officer, and Sarah is pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy. John’s case ends up in Phoenix, he gets home detention and the fees associated with it. Sarah’s case is filed in the justice courts, and she has to serve all of her jail time at Tent City and pay thousands more than John. (Keep in mind, if Sarah can’t afford to pay all of those jail costs, that ends up getting paid by the taxpayers).

Should the same exact crime really have such different sentencing results only based on which officer investigated the crime? Common sense would tell you no. The understanding of the Equal Protection Clause, found in our Constitution’s 14th Amendment (that a state must apply the law equally to all) seems to say “no” as well to rebuff this disparate treatment. The Due Process clause, found in the same part of the Constitution, might also apply. Sarah could very well be deprived of property (money) in having to serve her time in the tents and pay those costs rather than do electronic monitoring like her friend, John. She has no true recourse because the justice courts simply refuse to use home detention as a method of jail sentencing. There’s something pretty unfair about the whole thing.

It’s time to take a step toward remedying this unfairness and past the Sheriff’s uninformed views. The people should know what is happening in their community and the positions that our elected leaders are taking on this issue. No one supports drinking and driving, but no one should be punished so much more severely for such an unimportant and unfair reason.

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