Wayne County breaks law with outrageous copying fees

spiritofdetroitLeonard Arnold is fed up with police brutality, so he decided to do something about it.

Without any journalism or law experience, the 49-year-old Detroiter began combing through lawsuits filed against the Detroit Police Department. To his surprise, dozens of brutality suits are filed against some of the same cops every year.

To begin investigating the cases, the roofer with a modest income needed copies of some of the lawsuits. So he asked the clerks at the Wayne County records division to copy 325 pages, which represents just a tiny fraction of the suits. The cost – $731.25.

“I thought this was a service, not a profit center,” Arnold told me, leaving the office feeling defeated. “It’s outrageous. You’d think they were handing out gold.”

The Wayne County Clerk’s record division charges a whopping $2.25 for a single copy, despite Michigan court rulings that limit the cost to 15 cents per page in most cases.

The cost is so prohibitive that many people walk out in disgust, unable to copy public records that often are needed for lawsuits, divorces, and criminal cases.

The fees are a blatant violation of the Freedom of Information Act, which limits copying costs “to actual duplication, mailing and labor costs.”

The county also breaks the law by failing to waive fees for low-income residents.

“The first $20 of a fee must be waived for a person who is receiving public assistance or presents facts showing inability to pay because of indigency,” state law reads.

Deputy Wayne County Clerk Caven West, who was on vacation today, was defensive and insisted the copying fees are appropriate because they help pay for the costs of infrastructure and storing public records, which state law (FOIA) clearly prohibits.

“When you add up all of those costs, it has to get paid for,” West said. “This is not a business we are running.”

To finance infrastructure and the storage of public records – a very basic municipal service – the county is supposed to use its tax-funded budget of $23.8 million, which has spiked 9.1% since 2011, despite the sour financial times.

“I’m not an attorney, and I’m sure that if we were doing something that our attorneys thought was inappropriate, they would have said something,” West told me.

When I was a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, West prevented me from making my own copies with an iPhone scanner. The newspaper’s attorney, Herschel Fink, worked out a plan with the clerk’s office to provide records for free to Free Press reporters.

But West said that courtesy doesn’t extend to others outside of the media.

In other words, a multi-billion-dollar company gets records for free but other taxpayers must pay $2.25 per page.

“How do you look a Detroit resident in the face and say they must pay more than $50 to get a copy of a small lawsuit?” I asked West.

After a long pause, West insisted – for the first time – that his interview with me was off the record.

“You’re a public servant,” I reminded him.

Before hanging up and wishing me a good day, he said, “I am not to be quoted.”

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.