A Day in Court
by Ari Armstrong, April 8, 2000
Replies were added to this article on April 14.
It was an education. I attended the Westminster municipal court on April 5 to deal with a traffic ticket. Little did I know as I walked in at 8:00 in the morning that I'd have to sit through the proceedings till almost noon. But it beat the dickens out of Peoples' Court and Judge Judy, and there were no commercial interruptions. Unfortunately, a few of the cases I saw there seemed out of place.
Judge Holland presided with grace and good sense. The most common type of case was theft pertaining to shop-lifting. The judge did a fine job of lecturing the offenders about the evils of theft. She made clear the importance of private property, even when it is sold at a big department store. She pointed out that thefts increase the cost of goods for all of us. Most of the offenders were minors accompanied by their parents. Most seemed genuinely remorseful. At least a couple, though, were clearly sorry only to have gotten caught. It was fairly obvious which offenders were likely to continue committing crimes.
I'm fairly confident that one of the girls will be all right. Both her parents attended the hearing with her, and they were obviously concerned about the well-being of their child as well as with the gravity of the crime.
However, while most of the cases dealt with legitimate crimes, a few were of questionable merit. This leads me to question the validity of some city ordinances.
One young man was charged with having a "loud sound" come from his vehicle. I.e., his radio was turned up too loudly. While I readily grant that loud radios can be annoying to other drivers, is it really an issue worthy of the time of Westminster police officers and the Westminster courts? Isn't there more serious business to attend to?
Three of the cases pertained to curfews. To me, how late a young person stays out is up to the parents. Yes, some parents are irresponsible. But is it really up to the city of Westminster to play the role of mommy? Again, this doesn't strike me as a valuable use of the city's resources.
One unfortunate man was charged with providing alcohol to an underage person. But get this -- he wasn't even home at the time of the alleged incident. Rather, his roommate had given an alcoholic beverage to another person under 21. But the roommate's name didn't appear on the apartment lease, so only the one man was charged with the crime, even though he clearly had no direct involvement in it. The young man was relatively poor and was obviously no expert on legal matters. Clearly, any competent lawyer would have had the charge dropped. I believe the city prosecutors -- and yes, the judge -- took advantage of the man's inability to legally defend himself. Unfortunately, it is this type of behavior which fosters distrust of police and the courts especially among the less advantaged members of society.
The cases with the least merit involved loose dogs. In one case, a woman was charged with "public nuisance" because her dog was running in a field behind the woman's house, while she was present. In another case, a man's grandchild had accidentally left open the gate to the yard, allowing the dog to run free for a short time. Animal control gave the man THREE tickets for the offense, one for having a loose dog, one for medical records, and one because no papers proved the dog was neutered. In addition, animal control called a police officer to the scene, because apparently the man's wife was a little upset. Fortunately, the officer made light of the situation, saying the gentleman might take the dog to court to show the judge directly that the dog didn't have the relevant body parts.
It seems obvious that the animal control personnel was harassing the grandfather. Who but an insensitive power-tripper would do anything but offer a friendly warning to the kindly gentleman? To issue a ticket simply for a paperwork technicality, when it was obvious the dog was neutered, is ridiculous. For animal control to similarly waste a police officer's time is inexcusable. Clearly there needs to be more stringent accountability for the animal control units.
I happened to sit by a true gentleman in the courtroom. His "crime?" During one of the big snow storms, he had accidentally slid into the back of another automobile in a parking lot. There was no damage other than a scuff mark. But the other vehicle was a police vehicle, so of course the scene had to blown out of all reasonable proportion. Another officer documented the scene with photographs and otherwise wasted taxpayer dollars. Fortunately, Judge Holland properly evaluated the merits of the case and showed leniency.
That gentleman described some of the pointless court cases best. He said, "Things aren't this petty in Texas," where the man used to live. Petty indeed.
The cases outlined above suggest that city ordinances should be reformed along the lines of common sense. But of course I ultimately offer a more radical solution. Sure, we want certain building codes in place in our neighborhoods. Sure, we want to keep dogs with rabies from running loose. But what's the best way to enact and monitor these rules? I believe it's through voluntary homeowners' associations. Right now certain neighborhoods hire their own security officers and set their own building codes. One consents to those rules by buying property in the community. There's no reason why such arrangements could not be expanded to totally eliminate the legislative entity known as the city. With city ordinances and coercive taxation, there is often a disconnect between sensible safety and property rules and the legal powers. Private organizations would tend to create more sensible rules while cutting out abusive enforcement. Cities should replace coercive governments with voluntary associations.
The only laws for alcohol should require parental consent for minors. As for my traffic ticket? Private roads would have private enforcers, who would be less concerned with generating revenue and making easy stops than with the safety of the roads. That said, Officer McIntosh, who pulled me over, was adequately polite and I admitted to him a poor judgment call on my part (even though I don't believe I was in technical violation of the law).
Officer McIntosh was reasonably professional, Judge Holland did a fine job, and I also had the opportunity to meet with Butch Hicks, city councilor, on April 6. He was sympathetic with my concerns about some of the cases I witnessed. So libertarians need to remember that, while we criticize many elements of modern government, those who work in government are very often good people worthy of our respect. As we work to change the system, it's very helpful to make friends within the system.
Letter in Reply
I have been asked by Chief Dan Montgomery to respond to the concerns you addressed in your e-mail to Butch Hicks on April 8, 2000. According to your e-mail comments, you are most troubled by what you view as trivial laws and the interference of government into the lives of the citizens by citing them with minor infractions. I would first like to address the overall philosophy of City Council concerning legislative acts.
The majority of the ordinances are enacted because citizens have voiced a complaint about a problem in the community. The complaint is viewed from a perspective of "is an ordinance necessary to solve the problem." If legislative action is required, the City Attorney's Office determines if it is constitutionally feasible. City Council is provided with the proposal and the background surrounding the issue. Council's decision in this process is multi-faceted and they have to take many things under consideration. City Ordinances are enacted carefully and slowly with a great deal of thought and review by Council and City Staff.
The following is in response to your comments on the cases brought before the Court:
* The issue of alcohol being given to minors: the Ordinance states "allow to be given." The problem in these cases run the gamut of fatal accidents, vandalism, fights, neighborhood disturbances, and teen pregnancies. If we had to prove who actually handed the alcohol to the juvenile, we would not be able to hold anyone accountable for providing alcohol to minors. I did not research this case, but I am confident that there was evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the homeowner allowed and knew about the situation.
* The Animal Control cases: the woman in court with the "dogs at large" in the green belt is not what it seems. In court, only the current and pertinent facts are admissible. What prompts the court appearance is often substantial but not discussed. Animal Control works toward compliance through community education, as a last resort, a summons is issued. In the dogs at large case, this was the seventh warning and/or ticket she received. The reason she receives so much attention is that the animal control unit receives complaints from the homeowners association.
* On the other situation, the animal owner met the Animal Control Officer at the door screaming that the officer was a liar and a "wanna-be-cop." This type of attitude often begets a summons because there is little likelihood of compliance.
* The issue of rabies tags and spayed/neuter ordinance are intertwined. In years past, the animal-at-large ordinance stood alone. The Animal Control Officers were forced to put down hundreds of unwanted animals. Because of this fact, the ordinances and fines were changed and the "at large" and attendant unwanted animal problem has lessened. The Animal Control Officers do not harass the citizens. They love animals and do their best to curtail the epidemic of destroying unwanted animals.
* In answer to your comments pertaining to the gentleman who slid on the ice and rear-ended the patrol car, there are two points to consider. Most people are honorable, but from experience we have learned that it is best to ticket the driver because this indicates liability. We photograph the damage to show what was done, and who is responsible. If we cannot prove who is at fault, and provide evidence of the damage, then City staff would be in court defending the City from an unwarranted and expensive lawsuit. I should also note that police officers do receive tickets in the same type of situation.
In closing, Mr. Armstrong, we would like to thank you for bringing your concerns to our attention. I hope that I have been able to reassure you that the City is very responsive to the community and the issues brought to us.
Dear Mr. McLoughlin,
Thank you for your detailed reply to my inquiry. You answered most of my concerns. It is evident that you and other Westminster officials are sincere about enforcing the laws justly. I have but a couple additional comments.
Relative to the man who allegedly provided alcohol to a minor, you say, "I am confident that there was evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the homeowner allowed and knew about the situation."
I only wish I could be as confident. After speaking directly with the man in question, it seemed likely to me, given my admittedly limited knowledge about the particulars of the case, that the man did not know his roommate was providing alcohol to a minor. I for one maintain a reasonable doubt, as well as the concern that he was targetted because he is poor and unable to legally defend himself. I mean, not that this was in your jurisdiction, but Governor Owens allegedly provided alcohol to minors, but do you think he was found guilty in court? HA!
Concerning the case of the grandfather whose grandchild had accidentally let the dog out of the gate for a short time, you write:
"[T]he animal owner met the Animal Control Officer at the door screaming that the officer was a liar and a "wanna-be-cop." This type of attitude often begets a summons because there is little likelihood of compliance."
To be frank, if I was ticketed because my dog escaped the yard for a short time I'd be a little angry myself. Apparently, the Animal Control Officer did make false claims, such as that the dog was not neutered. I see no justification for your claim that the "attitude" displayed indicates "little likelihood of compliance." Rather, the attitude of the Animal Control Officer, in issuing THREE tickets for one ultra-minor offense, could be characterized as one of arrogance. If people are to respect the law, the law must be reasonably enforced.
To generalize, I would posit for your consideration the contention that justice is more than simply fulfilling the letter of the law. I agree that in every case the letter of the law was met. Yet in at least the two cases discussed in this letter, a pretty good case can be made that the law was enforced overzealously, and indeed inappropriately.
Again I thank you for your consideration of my points. I think we all realize that reasonable people can hold different opinions about such issues. I'm basically satisfied with your efforts to look into these matters and I do not request any further action. I ask only that, as similar cases come down the pike, you keep these concerns in the back of your mind.