By Caitlin Johnson
In 2013, state lawmakers clearly targeted Linndale – Northeast Ohio’s most notorious speed-trap – when they abolished mayor’s courts in municipalities with populations under 200. Linndale is not an affluent community. Nearly half the residents live below the poverty line and the median income is just over $30,000.
With a population of 1,300, lawmakers spared the wealthy lakefront village of Bratenahl, where the median income is nearly three times Linndale’s. Bratenhal’s mayor’s court is still raising revenue through traffic tickets given mostly to Black people.
Yet in light of new revelations from internal emails showing the village tying police raises to how much money they are able to generate through traffic tickets, some legal experts say it could be violating defendants’ constitutional rights.
“We are deeply troubled by what we are seeing in Bratenahl and are taking a serious look at whether this is constitutional and are contemplating taking whatever action we need to take to fix it,” says Executive Director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, David Singleton.
Police “under pressure”
Following my report on Bratenahl’s police department and mayor’s court, an anonymous source sent me an email between Bratenahl Mayor John Licastro and Police Chief Richard Dolbow from November 15, 2018.
“The downturn in Mayor’s Court revenue could not have come at a worse time. We have had a huge reduction in income tax in 2018 (almost $300,000). Both of these will have an effect on raises, etc.,” Licastro wrote to Dolbow. “Prepare yourselves. We will talk.”
Chief Dolbow forwarded this email to the Bratenahl officers: “I have forwarded this message to you so you can see that the Lt. and I have been under pressure from the Mayor to explain the downturn in productivity and revenue.
“Beside (sic) the obvious that some of you are just lazy and refuse to work half as hard as your peers for the same pay, I can only guess that the 12 hour shifts are beating you up to (sic) much to hold your oath of office. I will be looking at stats and schedule to see what I should do to motivate the badge wearing slugs that have fallen short on the promise and jeopardized our financial raises that we have worked so hard to maintain.
Take a look in the mirror and hold yourself and your shift mates accountable, we are a team and when fails (sic) we all fail.”
Six months later, nearly two-thirds of Bratenahl voters approved an income tax levy to support police, fire and EMS and replace village vehicles. Bratenahl uses Cleveland Fire and EMS.
Raises tied to revenue
After seeing the emails, Bratenahl Councilmember Keith Benjamin said he is “alarmed by the content and tone of these emails and will be seeking further clarification.”
“As public servants, we have an obligation to ensure that our law enforcement and criminal justice systems treat all members of the public fairly and equitably under the law, and without bias,” he said.
Beyond revealing an abusive work culture, these emails draw a potentially damning connection between the village budget and police activities. According to what Licastro tells the chief and what the chief tells the officers, police raises are tied to revenue generated by the tickets they make that are sent to the mayor’s court.
I sent Licastro, Dolbow and the village attorney a copy of the emails and asked them to explain. Licastro said: “Mayor’s court is about safety and the law. Revenue is ancillary. The Police are charged with keeping our residents and the general public safe.”
Yet Singleton and other experts say that Bratenahl could be violating the constitution according to the 1927 U.S Supreme Court case, Tumey v. Ohio. In Tumey, the court struck down an Ohio law that rewarded public officials with extra compensation when they successfully prosecuted Prohibition cases. The court found that “to subject a defendant to trial in a criminal case involving his liberty or property before a judge having a direct, personal, substantial interest in convicting him is a denial of due process of law.”
After seeing the emails, nationally recognized civil rights expert Bennett Brummer said, “It’s crucial that people understand that the police officers, mayor and magistrate who are supposed to give defendants an impartial day in court, are all employees of the municipality, and their salaries all depend on the revenue they generate — as demonstrated by the emails.”
If Singleton’s group or another entity pursues legal action, it will be another unwanted court case for the village. Currently, a former officer is suing for wrongful termination and discrimination. In 2019, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Bratenahl had to pay more than $300,000 for sunshine law violations.
Mayor’s courts need reform
With nearly 300 mayor’s courts statewide, Ohio is one of a handful of states that still have mayor’s courts. Mayor’s courts hear traffic and local ordinance violations and are presided over by the mayor or a magistrate, who are only required to receive minimal training, according to the ACLU.
Bratenahl’s aggressive patrolling of the highway supplies the mayor’s court with a steady stream of defendants who often must pay the cost of their citation, as well as court costs. My research shows that most of the people pulled over in Bratenahl are Black and often live in much less affluent communities.
Part of the problem is that state lawmakers have slashed support for local governments. As a result, some communities have turned to fines and fees as ways to generate revenue, said Collin Marozzi, policy strategist for ACLU of Ohio.
“The single greatest way for villages to have this financial burden eased is for the state to return the Local Government Fund to 2010 levels,” he says. “If villages have budget issues, then they should turn to the members of their community in the form of tax levies, especially if they are of the socioeconomic status like the people of Bratenahl.”
Mayor’s courts don’t have to be revenue generating machines. The ACLU of Ohio says the village of Yellow Springs mayor’s court incorporates restorative justice principles. The court actually operated at a loss in 2017 and 2018. Mayor Pam Conine works hand in hand with a community justice task force. She told the ACLU of Ohio that she tries to find other ways for people to pay their debt to the village. For example, she offered a man cited for littering the choice of paying a fine or cleaning the nature preserve.
In Bratenahl, Councilmember Benjamin says it’s time for a change.
“I support reform and accountability efforts for Ohio’s Mayor’s Courts that increase transparency, ensure fairness and provide effective oversight,” he says. “Structural and institutional racism are deeply rooted in our society, and we have a moral and ethical responsibility to acknowledge and deal with these disparities and foster an atmosphere of integrity and trust that treats all members of our community with humility, dignity and respect.”
Mayor’s court reform has been a long time coming in Ohio. Late Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer called for state legislators to eliminate all Ohio’s mayor’s courts and part-time judges in 2005. The Plain Dealer echoed Moyer in 2018, editorializing that “Ohio mayor’s courts serve as little more than cash cows for their communities” and “They need to go.” Despite all the outcry, mayor’s courts are a stubborn problem. Former State Senator Kevin Coughlin tried unsuccessfully to pass a law abolishing all mayors courts in Ohio. For many advocates, their demise is a key part of creating a more fair and impartial justice system.
“Mayor’s courts seem to have one purpose and one purpose only and that is to generate revenue for their jurisdictions,” Singleton says. “And we shouldn’t be balancing our books on the backs of poor people.”
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