Archive for Thursday, August 11, 2005

Justice sought — and found — in local court

Dockets fill with misdemeanors, coffers with fines at Basehor Municipal Court

August 11, 2005

Representing herself, Kansas City, Mo., resident Sheryl Young strode to the witness stand Tuesday afternoon with an air of quiet confidence. And why shouldn't she? After all, truth was on her side and Young had a witness to back up her testimony.

Jason Buck of Hutchinson approached the stand with the same cool, collective demeanor. Like Young, he was also representing himself and believed he possessed the legal Ace needed to break free from the charge levied against him.

Surely here in the courtroom, the last frontier of law and order, a place where all are equal under the eyes of the law, the truth would be sought with a feverish passion and justice would prevail.

The trials of the century they weren't, but justice did indeed ring forth for Young and Buck Tuesday afternoon in Basehor Municipal Court. The outcomes were not what they desired, but their cases, like all heard in local court, received due attention nonetheless.

Municipal Court is a once-a-month affair in which Basehor City Hall fills with more people than during most council meetings. Here, defendants face charges of misdemeanors only; most cases heard stem from traffic citations.

The local court system may sound like a minor league affair, but it's far from it, Basehor police chief Terry Horner said.

Horner said the importance of the local court system lies in relieving district court of overflowing with lesser cases, providing residents with a sounding board for contesting citations and producing a steady revenue stream for city coffers.

In 2005, fines paid through Municipal Court have averaged $13,500 a month. A year ago, the total was $9,500.

Contrary to popular opinion, Horner said police officers do not have a quota to fill in issuing citations. Rather, he pointed to the increase in revenue from Basehor court fines as evidence of a growing community facing more crimes.

"It's not how much revenue you take in," Horner said. "We can't establish a ticket quota. It's at the officer's discretion. Handing out tickets isn't the priority, public safety is."

The local court system is a strange animal. It's a place where rich and poor, the buttoned down and the frazzled, the well scrubbed and the unwashed, meet to defend against minor infractions

The pace of Municipal Court can be frenzied at time.

On Tuesday, rows of seats inside the courtroom chambers fill quickly. Many people are waiting to stand before the judge, pay a fine and go on about their business. Rarely seen is the suit and tie armor of a trained attorney, but there are some that make sporadic, hit and run appearances.

The cases not requiring a trial are heard first. Most of the defendants called before the judge on this day are cited for "improper use of a sound application system." The majority of them plead guilty or no contest and a line of scruffy, baggy-pants-wearing teens soon forms near the court clerk, checkbooks in hand, ready to render before Caesar.

Defendants may request a bench trial if they wish, even in the most trivial of cases, and may represent themselves if the charge doesn't carry jail time. Spectators unfamiliar to the proceedings shouldn't expect the smooth, tidy process seen on television or its rehearsed, canned, dramatic moments, though.

Plus, anyone who believes they can lay it on The Man by representing themselves should be forewarned. The batting average for people defending themselves Tuesday -- .000.

Young, who was charged with speeding 31 mph in a 20-mph zone, testified she was only driving 22 mph. Her alibi witness recounted the same story.

If the speed don't fit, you must acquit, right? Wrong.

Her case unraveled when Basehor prosecutor Michael Mogenson asked, "So you admit you were going faster than the posted speed limit?" Case closed, according to Judge William Pray, who found Young guilty.

It wasn't exactly a moment cut from the cloth of a "Law and Order" episode, but luckily for Young not much hinged on her guilty verdict; the $115 fine is the same whether she was guilty of two or 11 miles over the speed limit.

Buck, who was charged with driving 41 mph in a 30-mph zone, got a little more creative in his defense. According to him, the date on his speeding ticket was wrong, so the ticket was "invalid."

Again, Pray corrected the defendant. Then he found Buck guilty and ordered the same $115 fine.

As the day wears on, the crowd thins out. As many leave the courtroom, their wallets lighter and egos bruised, some are shell shocked things didn't go their way.

Others, though, are humble in defeat. One defendant, a minor who was found guilty of a traffic infraction, said he liked the process more than the outcome.

"I figured I'd have to pay the fine anyways," he said. "But I figured it couldn't hurt to explain my side."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.