Get-tough initiative gets more public urinators to pay up

Share this:
May 24, 2004 // UPDATED 1:41 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Program includes collection-agent threat

A Downtown pilot project designed to crack down on so-called "nuisance" crimes such as public urination and begging is resolving more cases than the old system, according to a recent City Attorney progress report.

Police now issue civil fines to "nuisance" offenders instead of criminal tags. The new system allows the city to use a collection agency or call an offender into conciliation court if he or she fails to answer the ticket.

Under the "Nuisance Night Hearing" program that the City Council adopted last September, more than 51 percent of ticketed "livability" offenses have been resolved, meaning the offender either paid a fine, enrolled in Restorative Justice or did community service. That compares to 41 percent under the old system, a figure that included dismissed cases.

Under the new system, no offender requested a hearing to contest the civil fine, according to the report.

The report compared 93 civil fines and the same number of criminal tags issued between last Nov. 3 and March 31.

The new civil-fine system is designed to expedite cases involving low-level crimes such as begging, loitering, littering, public urination, consuming alcohol in public and graffiti tagging.

How the new system works

The name of the new system is a misnomer: There are no night hearings.

Under the "Nuisance Night Hearing" system, police officers "personally serve" an administrative ticket when the officer has a "reasonable belief" that a suspect has committed a "nuisance" crime, according to a May 5 City Attorney's report.

The ticket includes the offense date, time and type. It also instructs the person to request a hearing or pay the fine. The ticket includes a city contact number if an offender wants a hearing to contest the fine.

The new 1st Precinct program has trained 62 police officers and two civilians to issue tickets.

The Salvation Army has also contributed to the pilot program. Staff members meet with the offenders to design voluntary plans and provide progress reports to police and the City Attorney's Office.

The Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association (DMNA) has talked about approaching the University of St. Thomas Law School, 1100 LaSalle Ave., to host a "nuisance" night court. The proposal would rely on law students to handle the cases.

The neighborhood group (which represents Downtown's urban core, the riverfront west of Hennepin Avenue South and the Metrodome area north of 6th Street) has pledged $100,000 toward a night court proposal.

DMNA Chair Tom Hoch, head of Downtown's Historic Theater Group, said it's too early to judge the new method of dealing with "livability" offenders.

"System changes don't happen overnight, and we need to give the city's efforts another six months before we can really evaluate how successful the project is and what adjustments need to be made to it," he said.

The data

The City Attorney report also indicates that during the pilot, more offenders opted to pay their fines or complete community service under the new system -- 34, compared to 21 under the criminal model.

The new system took nearly as long to resolve cases -- 37 days versus 38 under the old system.

The new system has not paid for itself. It cost the city $5,747-$7,407 in expenses compared to $1,660 in collected fines, according to the City Attorney's report. (There are no comparable figures for the previous system, according to City Attorney's officials.)

The "Nuisance Night Hearing" program did refer eight offenders to the Restorative Justice program between November and March, compared to one person in a similar time period under the old system.

Restorative Justice, run by the Central Cities Neighborhood Partnership, brings low-level misdemeanor offenders face-to-face with community members in conferences to talk about the impact of their crimes. The program has held more than 500 conferences since it started six years ago.

Gina Gerard, a Restorative Justice program manager, said she'd like to see more people referred to the program. While the new civil-ticket has referred more offenders, the impact is still fairly small, she said.

Restorative Justice has the resources to handle between 40 to 50 cases a month, Gerard said. Now, they organize 10 to 15 cases.

Gerard said she'd like to see the city consider imposing steeper fines (most tags are now $80-$240) and refer more cases handled by the Violations Bureau.

Larger fines would give offenders more incentive to go through Restorative Justice, she said.

Room for improvement

While the statistics bode well for the new program, Deputy City Attorney Dana Banwer and Assistant City Attorney Lois Conroy, who focuses on the 1st Precinct (which includes Downtown), made some recommendations for improvement.

They suggested the City Council approve a credit card phone payment system. Most offenders would be willing to pay their fines if they had that option, according to their report to the Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee.

Second, they suggested comparing the costs of using the conciliation court versus a collection agency to pursue offenders who don't pay their tickets. Forty-three offenders, or 46.2 percent of the "Nuisance Night Hearing" cases, failed to respond to their administrative ticket.

Some disagreement

Last fall, Hennepin County judges opposed the new civil-ticket plan, saying a financially strapped court system would lose revenue.

In response to those who say "nuisance" crimes get lost when they hit the courts, Hennepin County Judge Richard Hopper said he may add more "nuisance" or "livability" cases to his docket, similar to a "mental health" court initiative for cases involving mentally ill suspects.

State Auditor Patricia Anderson has raised questions about allowing cities to prosecute state crimes as a civil offenses. State law bars the city from issuing fines for crimes defined and punished under state law.

Sam Magavern, a public policy advocate for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, 430 1st Ave. N., has argued that the new hearing process violates the constitutional separation of powers because city administration has usurped court authority.

Magavern sits on the Community Advisory Board on Homelessness, which advises the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County. The Advisory Board issued a report April 30 that said the new civil-ticket system unfairly targets homeless people without the means to pay.

Police counter that many offenders are not homeless and have the money to pay the fines. For instance, most people ticketed Downtown for public urination are suburbanites who relieve themselves on the streets after bars close, according to police reports.

Also, there are nonmonetary ways, such as community service, for the indigent to work off their fines.

Still, the advisory board report also recommends eliminating or restricting current "nuisance crime" ordinances that hit the homeless. The report cited a March 31 arrest report where police arrested and booked someone staying at the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center, 1010 Currie Ave., for "dancing in the street."

It also recommended amending the public urination and trespass ordinances and repealing the city's no-camping-and-panhandling ordinance.

The report advocates creating a Downtown day shelter/drop-in center and sobering center, among other initiatives to help the homeless and curb livability crime.

"While the new administrative process may be better than the criminal process, it still fails to distinguish between the acts of scofflaws and behaviors that stem not from criminal intent so much as from homelessness -- often combined with mental illness and/or chemical dependency," the report stated. "The vast majority of people in this situation will neither pay the fine nor sign up for Restorative Justice; they will simply end up with another unpaid debt and possibly with criminal charges on top of it."