Lawyer: Judge no longer doing 'pay-or-stay' sentences

By Ed White
Associated Press

MOUNT CLEMENS (AP) — A Macomb County judge accused of illegally sending people to jail if they couldn’t immediately pay fines made mistakes but now offers payment plans, according to his attorney. The American Civil Liberties Union is seeking an order prohibiting “pay-or-stay” sentences in the Eastpointe courtroom of Judge Carl Gerds III.
The group says sending someone to jail without checking their ability to pay has been unconstitutional for years.

Macomb County Judge James Maceroni didn’t make a ruling but told both sides to discuss a settlement that could be a “model” for other courts. He set another hearing for January.

“It’s ingrained in the culture of the county. ... District courts shouldn’t be looked at as a revenue source” for local government, Maceroni said.

The ACLU of Michigan sued last summer to stop the sentencing of a woman who couldn’t afford a $445 fine for failing to have her dogs licensed. She feared she would be sent to jail.

The ACLU said it has uncovered many cases of people going to jail for small offenses because they couldn’t afford to pay immediately. Gerds sentenced Ryan Rockett to 93 days in jail, even after a Macomb County judge overturned an earlier pay-or-stay sentence.

Maceroni said it appeared to be “vindictive.” Gerds’ attorney, Tom Rombach, acknowledged Monday that the judge may have made mistakes, but he disputes many cases listed by the ACLU without first digging into details.

“This is totally a rush to judgment,” Rombach said. “Judge Gerds is doing good-faith payment plans now.”

ACLU lawyer Michael Steinberg said a sweeping remedy is needed to prevent Gerds from “thumbing his nose” at long-settled U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

“We shouldn’t have to sit in Judge Gerds’ courtroom day-in and day-out to see if he’s following the law,” Steinberg told Maceroni.