Processing Irony in a Ninth Circuit Equal Protection Case

Circuit Judge Berzon hooked me with this opening paragraph of U.S. v. Trimble, case no. 06-30298 (May 30, 2007):

The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. The United States produced its first automobile in 1877, and the first traffic ticket issued in 1904.

This appeal to the Ninth Circuit was over a traffic ticket. Specifically, the penalty imposed for the violations as a result of the form of ticket used. Notwithstanding the minor nature of the offenses, the case implicates a major constitutional doctrine — equal protection.

Trimble was ticketed on a military base. The officer who wrote Trimble’s ticket did so on a brand new form that imposed a $25 processing fee in addition to any fine. Because of a shortage of the new forms, other officers at the exact same time were still writing tickets on the old form of ticket, which made no mention of a processing fee. At her court appearance, the fine imposed on Trimble included the processing fee on three violations (for a total of $75). She appealed, claiming that the imposition of the processing fee based solely on the form of ticket written violated the equal protection clause. The court agrees.

The irony? The $25 processing charge was instituted, according to the court, “to offset the costs of managing petty offense cases in the federal courts.” Yet Trimble invoked the appellate jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit, and successfully avoids the fee that was intended to offset the costs of routine federal court management.

On the equal protection issue, the court finds no rational basis for allowing different penalties despite its “excursion into imaginative recreation of possible justifications.”

Professor Shaun Martin isn’t sure the court exhausted the possibilities and is taken aback at the resources poured into an appeal over $75. His post at California Appellate Report ends (emphasis in original):

But let me add one more thing. Seventy five dollars. For that we appoint a public defender and have a U.S. attorney and the P.D. brief and argue an entire appeal? We can’t just save some money by confessing error and refunding the piddly seventy-five bucks?

Perhaps in the long run it will turn out to be money well spent. Professor Berman at Sentencing Law and Policy thinks the case may have broader implications:

Based on a quick read, I am not entirely sure whether the Trimble holding might provide a basis for questioning other sorts of criminal justice “injuries large and small.” Any readers have any suggestions or creative litigation thoughts?

Anyone who wants to respond to Professor Berman should go to his post.

Howard Bashman at How Appealing suggests that “the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts might wish to adjust its revenue projections to reflect that it won’t be receiving a $25 processing fee” for tickets issued at the base.

Small stakes, big issue, interesting case.

UPDATE: (5/31/07): A short post on this case at the Volokh Conspracy gathers some interesting comments. Decision of the Day also wrote up this one, and follows up with a post today that suiggests the first circuit isn’t so solicitous of small cases.

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