City of Aurora settles dispute over excessive court fees

Originally ordered to pay $678 in fines for the trio of offenses, that sum ballooned to nearly three time that amount in the years following due to late payments and additional fines

AURORA | The city of Aurora quietly settled a drawn-out dispute with resident James Fisher last month, forgiving hundreds of dollars of unpaid court fines Fisher had accrued and reimbursing him nearly $800 in overpaid court fees.

The settlement marks the end of several years of dust-ups between Fisher, 53, and the city.

In the December settlement, Aurora officials agreed to cancel any pending municipal warrants for Fisher, release any of his active bonds, pay off his remaining debt in Aurora court and refund the $790 in alleged overpayments Fisher made to the city, according to the agreement, which was provided by officials from the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. The local ACLU represented Fisher, who now works for the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District, throughout the case.

20170113-Debtors Prison-Denver, Colorado

James Fisher poses for a portrait outside of the ACLU offices on Friday Jan. 13, 2017 in Denver. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

20170113-Debtors Prison-Denver, Colorado

James Fisher poses for a portrait outside of the ACLU offices on Friday Jan. 13, 2017 in Denver. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

Fisher’s woes with the city court system began in 2012, when he was issued two open container tickets — both on the same night — and shortly thereafter a third ticket for driving without proof of insurance. Originally ordered to pay $678 in fines for the trio of offenses, that sum ballooned to nearly three times that amount in the years following due to late payments and additional fines. In total, he paid the court system $1,498 in 19 different payments, according to the ACLU. However, he maintained an additional $860 in outstanding fines spurred by failure to appear and warrant fees.

“They tried to assassinate my character and my integrity,” Fisher said.

After the city suspended Fisher’s license, he was unable to continue his work as a commercial truck driver and spent several stints living in homeless shelters and hotels.

Fisher’s case gained attention last spring after he testified at the State Capitol in favor of House Bill 1311, later signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, which closed what backers called a loophole in the law for municipal courts. Sponsored by former state Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, the measure bars municipal courts from issuing “failure to appear” warrants for people who are facing “undue hardships,” such as homelessness, use of public assistance, public housing or an income that is more than 200 percent below of the federal poverty line.

Supporters of the measure claimed cities were enforcing the “failure to appear” warrants in lieu of “failure to pay” warrants, which were prohibited in circumstances similar to Fisher’s under a separate piece of legislation passed in 2014 intended to curb so-called “debtor’s prison” practices in the state.

The city now only issues “failure to appear” warrants for non-monetary offenses, such as missing an arraignment, pre-trial conference, hearing or trial, according to city spokesman Michael Bryant.

The 2016 law pushed the city last year to forgive or “vacate” nearly 2,900 outstanding warrants. Originally, city council gave the Aurora court system the go-ahead to look at vacating nearly 4,500 warrants for low-level crimes.

Former Aurora Chief Judge Richard Weinberg, who retired from the bench last year, signed an order June 28 to begin the process of vacating outstanding warrants in the city, according to Bryant. The city’s court administration clerks later identified 2,859 outstanding warrants that had monetary obligations attached. Those warrants were vacated under the new law. The total amount due on the vacated warrants was $1,412,398.64, which is now being handed over to a collections agency, according to Bryant.

Another 1,595 warrants that were examined by the court were maintained because they did not require payment. Instead, those warrants required defendant’s to complete other service activities such as defensive driver courses, according to Bryant.

Despite the recently vacated warrants, officials from the ACLU maintained the city and the state have yet to fully rectify debtor’s prison practices.

“What we’re really talking about is punishing people for their poverty,” said Rebecca Wallace, a staff attorney at the ACLU who worked on Fisher’s case. “That practice is not over…we still have work to do.”

Former Aurora Sentinel staff writer Rachel Sapin contributed to this report.