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Macomb County judge faces court scrutiny over "pay or stay" sentencing

A Macomb County judge found himself at the center of a court hearing Monday.

Eastpointe district judge Carl Gerds III has come under scrutiny for sentencing defendants to jail time for failing to pay fines stemming from civil infractions.

Two of the better-known cases to come out of Gerds’ court include a woman who faced jail time for failing to pay dog licensing fines, and a man who did jail time for failing to pay $1500 worth of traffic tickets.

According to the Michigan ACLU, that practice is unconstitutional if a defendant goes to jail because they are actually unable to pay, and if the court makes no effort to determine that.

The ACLU maintains that’s the case in Gerds’ court, and has asked the Macomb County Circuit Court to step in with an order of superintending control. That would basically amount to higher court supervision of Gerds’ sentencing practices.

Judge James Maceroni didn’t immediately rule in the case. He urged both sides to work out a deal outside of court, and scheduled another conference date in January.

Judge Gerds’ lawyer, Tom Rombach, argues no action is necessary because Gerds is no longer “imposing any sentence that is even remotely similar to a pay or stay sentence,” and has begun “making individualized inquiries about [defendants’] ability to pay,” and has established “good faith payment plans” in his court.

ACLU attorney Michael Steinberg disagrees. “Even if it’s true that there’s been some change in the judge’s sentencing practice, that superintending control is still warranted,” he says.

“Unless it can be shown that there’s a certainty that it won’t happen again. And given Judge Gerds’ history, we have grave concerns.”

Steinberg added that concerns about pay or stay sentencing extend beyond Judge Gerds’ courtroom and Macomb County, and court intervention would send a strong message. “What’s really needed is a circuit judge to say, once and for all, enough is enough,” he says.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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