'Booking fee' challenge may be SCOTUS-bound

Arrest at Wal-Mart led to class-action lawsuit over nonrefunded booking fees

By Mike Mosedale
BridgeTower Media Newswires
MINNEAPOLIS — A little over three years ago, Corey Statham was arrested and jailed for two days after being cited for obstruction and disorderly conduct by an off-duty St. Paul police officer who was moonlighting at a Wal-Mart store.

The officer’s jotted down explanation of the arrest was slight on detail, stating only that Statham “was with another male at Wal-Mart who attempted to lure underage female. Male refused to ID himself and exit mv.”

Statham, who now goes by name Tamir Malik Ali, did not take the accusation lying down.

“The fact that I was ‘with another male’ who allegedly attempted a felonious act is not an admission of guilt on my behalf and is an absolute fallacy of law,” he wrote in one of several forceful letters to the St. Paul city attorney in the wake of the incident. “For all purposes I could have been seated next to a mass murderer. Yet, this is not a reasonable articulable fact to suspect that I am a mass murderer as well.”

If the charges were not dropped and he wound up getting dragged into court, Statham warned, he expected to be compensated for his time. To that end, he enclosed his “fee schedule:” $100,000 per “involuntary court visit” and $100,000 per hour for “involuntary apprehension of person.”

To make things even weirder, Statham provided this notice under the letterhead of the Moorish National Republic, a religious group whose adherents believe that American blacks are descended from the nation’s original “Moorish” inhabitants and are therefore entitled to a self-governing, nation-within-a-nation status.

As it turned out, Statham did not have to fight for his $100,000 court appearance fee, nor did he have to further explain the nuances of his unusual creed. Citing insufficient evidence, the city attorney’s office dismissed the charges against Statham, as well as the ones against his co-defendant.

But that didn’t end the dispute – far from it, in fact.

Now, following years of continued legal wrangling over his arrest and a pair of federal lawsuits, Statham’s gripe just may wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

How did that happen? Statham could not be reached for comment but, from all appearances, his litigious instincts played a role.

Not long after the criminal case was dropped, Statham brought suit against the city of St. Paul in U.S. District Court, asserting, among other things, that the city violated his due process rights and engaged in unlawful taking by towing his 2001 Nissan Maxima SE after the Wal-Mart arrest.

When Statham failed to come up with $1,779 in accrued storage and towing charges, the city then sold the Nissan at auction — a particularly harsh blow for Statham because, according to the suit, at the time he was living out of the vehicle.

In 2015, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis dismissed the suit, ruling that Statham had failed to exhaust his remedies in state court. (His lawyer in that case, A.L. Brown of St. Paul, said he was not pursuing an appeal in the case, which raises some of the same due process issues as the case may now go before SCOTUS.)

It seemed like Statham would not fare much better as a co-lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against Ramsey County, which also was also an outgrowth of the Wal-Mart arrest. In that suit, Statham challenged the legality of Ramsey County’s practice of pre-emptively imposing a $25 “booking fee” on all arrestees.

In Statham’s case, the booking fee was taken out of the $46 in cash in his pocket when he was arrested. Upon his release, the county didn’t return his cash. Instead, Statham was presented with a debit card. Following the deduction of the $25 booking fee, the card had a balance of just $21 — a sum which was further diminished by an additional $7.25 as a result of assorted ATM and processing fees.

Although Ramsey County provides a booking fee refund form to individuals who can establish their innocence, Statham claimed the process was overly complicated and wrongly placed the burden on innocent defendants to get their money back. Further, he complained that he still could not avoid paying fees on the debit card.

The class action lawsuit (which was brought by Minneapolis civil rights attorney Joshua Williams) was tossed on summary judgement by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Nelson. Nelson’s ruling was later affirmed by a panel of the 8th Circuit.

Undeterred, Statham’s new lawyer – Michael Carvin, a partner in the Washington D.C. office of Jones Day who has argued numerous cases before SCOTUS, including the recent Obamacare challenge, filed a petition for writ of certiorari in October.

In urging the court to take Statham’s case and, possibly, consolidate it with a similar booking fee challenge out of Colorado, Carvin wrote that the Ramsey County booking fee charge reflects “the increasingly common practice in cash strapped municipalities of funding government operations on the backs of poorest citizens.”

And while there isn’t much money at stake, Carvin argued that’s one reason the court should take the case.

“Challenges like this one – to government policies that are facially pedestrian and that involve small amounts of money – are relatively rare,” he explained in the petition. “The cost of litigating such challenges is high, the potential damages are low, and it is difficult for counsel to bring such cases in the face of confusing and contradictory lower court decisions.”

Initially, Ramsey County waived its right to respond to the petition. But earlier this month, the high court signaled its interest in learning more and ordered the county to submit a brief by January 13.

Jason Hively, the attorney for representing Ramsey County and a partner at the Iverson Reuvers Condon firm in Bloomington, did not respond to a request for comment.

At oral arguments before the 8th Circuit, however, Hively defended the county’s booking fee charge, saying that the $25 fee represents “barely a third of what it actually costs to book someone” and that the county has a legitimate interest in recouping some of its administrative costs.

James Burnham, the Jones Day associate who argued Statham’s case before the 8th circuit panel, said the county could resolve the due process issues by simply waiting for defendants to be convicted before collecting a booking fee.

Burnham also rejected the notion that the booking fee and associated debit card charges involve so little money that it’s not worth fighting over.

“Generally speaking, arrestees are people who don’t have a lot of money,” Burnham said. For some people, he added, $25 is the equivalent of a half day's work or a week’s worth of food.