Better And Better

If you don't draw yours, I won't draw mine. A police officer, working in the small town that he lives in, focusing on family and shooting and coffee, and occasionally putting some people in jail.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why we do it.

I had to stand as bailiff, the other day.

The officer who regularly handles our municipal court bailiff duties wasn't available, so I got called in to handle it.

Usually, the bailiff in our little municipal court kind of acts as a gofer for the judge and the court clerk, and stands around making things look official. I don't much care for it, but it's part of the job, and it's a job that needs doing. Every so often, court rooms can get a little tense, and ultimately, the bailiff's job is security for the court.

On this occasion, part of my job was helping out with a jury trial. We don't have a lot of municipal jury trials. Starting about 45 minutes before court was to begin, good citizens began filing in with their jury trial notification forms. I helped out the court clerk by taking their filled-out forms, assigning them a jury badge, and providing them with paperwork from the judge informing them of their expected duties and behavior. I was impressed by the huge turn-out. We got about an 85% response rate, with several of those who hadn't shown having already contacted the court clerk with legitimate reasons for not responding.

None of the jury candidates was particularly irritated about this disruption in their lives. They simply came to do what they were called to do. I made it a point to thank each one directly for attending.

The voir dire was longer than I would have thought, with both the prosecutor and defendant's counsel doing their best to weed out potential problems, and both making a sincere effort to get the remaining candidates to keep an open mind to their own side.

The trial was a simple traffic court. The charge was the most common: speeding. The defense raised some great points, and the prosecutor courteously treated those points as genuine threats to the State's case. Direct examination, redirect, closing statements-- all were delivered with the solemnity of a murder trial. The trial took two hours before the jurors adjourned to their room, deliberated, and came back with a verdict.

In Texas, Speeding carries a minimum fine of $1, and a maximum fine of $200. Given the cost of paying the judge, the court clerk, the prosecutor, the bailiff, and paying for the building overhead, the city wasn't going to profit a dime from this, no matter what the outcome.

The jury decided that the defendant was guilty, and the judge thanked them, discharged them, and set the fine. The prosecutor and the defense attorney both shook hands and left.

The court clerk remarked to the judge that it hardly seemed worth all that trouble, what with bothering all the jurors to come in, then going through the selection, then taking so long for the trial, for such a small fine. The judge immediately said, "No, this is the most important thing that we do here. If we didn't treat each and every case with this kind of respect, your job would be a lot harder, and the city would be a joke."

I have to say that I agree. Every ticket that I write, I need to be prepared to defend to the court why I have compelled a person to address the issue at hand. If I am not prepared to endure that scrutiny, than my badge, uniform, and office mean nothing. Considering that failure to respond to a citation in Texas means that a warrant will be issued by the court, that piddlin' little ticket actually is pretty important. And occasionally writing tickets to enforce the rules of the road is part of what makes it generally a safe proposition to drive through our little town.

I live here, too.

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At Thursday, August 26, 2010 4:04:00 PM, Blogger zeeke42 said...

How does one get a jury trial for a traffic violation?

At Thursday, August 26, 2010 4:30:00 PM, Blogger ZerCool said...

Kudos to the judge.

Fortuitous timing, as well - I just scrawled my own piece about jury duty.

At Thursday, August 26, 2010 5:01:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Actually, I think it's good that "the city didn't profit a dime from it."

Whenever you introduce a financial incentive into jurisprudence or law enforcement, it's a sure recipe for abuse of powers. (Eminent Domain and Asset Forfeiture are some good examples.)

Imagine what things would look like in your sleepy burgh if the local court, PD, and DA office had to rake in their entire operating budget through asset forfeiture and speeding fines...

At Thursday, August 26, 2010 5:04:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

(Or worse: what if the city told everyone their salaries are directly tied to the number of prosecutions, asset forfeiture seizings, and traffic stops?)

At Thursday, August 26, 2010 7:24:00 PM, Blogger Nancy R. said...

I'm thrilled to see that the system still works at least somewhere, sometimes. It gives me hope.

At Thursday, August 26, 2010 7:35:00 PM, Blogger Old NFO said...

Good point Matt, without the right to a jury trial, we're done...

At Thursday, August 26, 2010 7:42:00 PM, Blogger Matt G said...

@ zeeke42: In Texas, one asks the court for it.

@ ZerCool: I very much respect our judge. He's ruled against tickets that I've written before, and I'm fine with that. He's a very fair man. I feel very confident serving a warrant that he's written. I'm off to read your own piece right after this comment.

@ Marko: In Texas, the state has a law that the revenues from a town's fines may not exceed 25% of their total revenues. Anytime they exceed that amount, the most the city may keep is $1 US. I have LOUDLY declared that I am not a revenue generator.

Interestingly, the fire department has no such law constraining them. With their billing techniques, they can actually turn a profit from their EMS. Sadly, the city council has a habit at looking at the overall expenses before deciding which to re-invest in. Not that I'm bitter, or anything. . .

@ Nancy: Me, too! I had a citation once go to trial, and the defense attorney on cross-examination asked me some questions about the charge that I admitted I honestly couldn't remember the answer to. (It had been a year, and I hadn't taken notes that specific.) The judge ruled "Not Guilty." The prosecutor (a differernt one from the superb one that we now have) said, "The problem with you, Officer Guest, is that you're honest to a fault."

The judge (same judge) heard that and quickly interrupted: "No, he's not. He's honest to a credit. The city may have lost a battle, but has won the credibility war, today."

I'll have to admit to being a little proud of that assessment.

At Friday, August 27, 2010 3:04:00 AM, Blogger John B said...

I freely admit Matt, You're a better man than I. Up here in LA North, they use the courts to shake down everyone. It's no coincidence that the IRS filing dates and the Court's Highest Activity are exactly four weeks out of sync, but the curves are identical.

And I served twice for Jury Duty, and now excuse myself on basis of infirmity. I couldn't sit in a courtroom for six to ten hours a day anymore.

Though I someday hope to serve on a high-profile, sequestered jury. I'm getting the steak and lobster. Get some of my taxes back!

You're a better man than I, Matt. I just said so on my blog.

At Friday, August 27, 2010 5:29:00 PM, Anonymous Jennifer said...

Nice to know the system is working like it should.

At Sunday, August 29, 2010 9:20:00 PM, Blogger KD5NRH said...

In a small town, what bugs me is all the delay just to get to the point where I can point out that the defense attorney once shot me in the foot, (accidentally, luckily only one pellet hit my boot) I've dated the accused's sister, and numerous other little issues that don't exactly make me the ultimate in impartiality.
They don't even let me get to the part about supporting a mandatory and immediate death penalty for third offense DUI.

At Sunday, August 29, 2010 11:37:00 PM, Blogger Matt G said...

@ KD5NRH: Very funny! Impartiality is relative in any community.


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