City Staff's Complaint Against Judges: They're Too Damned Fair

Categories: Schutze

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Every time City Hall sets about reforming its own court system through the judicial appointments process, I see that same old bad penny coming around again. They want municipal court judges who will do what a bunch of 23-year-old city prosecutors tell them to do.

Been there myself. Let me come back to that.

Meanwhile, City Hall staff has been complaining again to the City Council that city judges are too soft on defendants.

The staff wants certain judges booted from the bench. This is an old-old song. Two years ago the staff tried to get the council to go along with them on an effort to root out judges they didn't like by suggesting maybe the council-members themselves should have a greater role in picking judges -- a system that would have been on a par with giving the job to every fourth person who walks out of the Greyhound bus station.

The staff argument is that municipal judges rule against city prosecutors too much. On the one hand, that's a tough call for somebody like me who's looking in from outside without a law degree or any experience in the courts. Correction: without much experience.

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Here come the judges.
But I do have two eyeballs and a memory. I do recall a story we did at the Observer some 13 years ago about the Topletz family who own a lot of low-end rental property in southern Dallas. City staff were all up in arms because the Topletzes kept beating the city's code enforcement tickets in court. The city even ginned up some kind of criminal investigation of one of its own prosecutors who had been dismissing the tickets before the tickets even got to court.

But guess why that was happening. The tickets were no good. Our story at the time wrote it off as incompetence on the part of the city staffers who were writing the tickets. I think there was a darker side to that story: The Topletzes beat all those tickets because they were obeying the law, and the campaign of legal hectoring that produced the tickets was a political vendetta with not insignificant anti-Semitic overtones pushed by southern Dallas council members.

The prosecutor who got slimed in all of this was merely tossing out tickets she could tell were bogus, because she knew the municipal court judges were going to spot the scam and toss the tickets anyway.

Wait. That was a long time ago. I have a more recent case in mind -- one you may have heard of. Robert Groden is a Kennedy assassination author whom we just profiled in our recent people edition Groden lectures and sells books in Dealey Plaza on the weekends.

The city has ticketed Groden more than 80 times and also arrested him multiple times, all of which has been thrown out by municipal court judges. At first, the people at the city's nearby official "Sixth Floor" assassination museum denied frostily to me that they were the ones getting Groden popped.

But in Groden's ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, the city admitted that the Sixth Floor had instigated at least one of the arrests.

The Sixth Floor is a plaything and darling of the city's old power elite. Its chief purpose on earth is to make the case that the Kennedy assassination wasn't our fault.

The legal hectoring of Groden by the city has been another political prosecution -- city staff trying to use the city court system to curry favor with the old mossbacks.

My own encounter was much more prosaic and long ago. It involved a trashcan holder I had made myself and of which I was proud. Even though I had checked the ordinances ahead of time to make sure I would be legal, the city said I was not and ticketed me.

What I found was that every time I failed to just plead guilty and pay the fine, the fines and penalties doubled. I would use the term Kafkaesque, but too many people would think I was just coughing. Suffice to say: It's a system designed to beat you into paying your fine before you ever get a chance to blurt a word to a judge.

At one point after it had escalated beyond belief, I found myself before two city prosecutors downtown who appeared to be teenagers. When I said I wanted to know what kind of lesser offense they could offer me to get the thing back down to real-world levels, they told me they didn't know how to do that. It could have been a bargaining ploy, but I believe they meant it.

So I wound up in court facing a big fine and possible jail time, if you can believe that. My lawyer breezed in at the last minute -- busy-busy -- took a quick look at my ticket, and said, "Crap."

"Why crap?" I asked, thinking of my usual luck with authority.

"They put a check by 'historic overlay district' for your neighborhood, and they should have checked 'historic underlay.'"

I turned to my wife and said, "Leave now, go out to the street and purchase for me two cartons of cigarettes, which I will need so that I can make friends where I am going."

The lawyer showed the ticket to the judge. The judge scrutinized, pondered, shrugged, whispered to the two prosecutors, who shrugged and held out their palms in the traditional teenage gesture for "Sorry, Dad," and then the judge said, "Dismissed."

"I always win," the lawyer told me on the way out. "City staff can't write their own tickets."

I'm not sure I won, exactly. I had to pay the lawyer five bills. But, considering, it was better than it could have been.

So forgive me if I'm glad we have judges in the city courts who have some bone structure once in a while. And forgive me some more if I think I know why the staff doesn't like them.

God forbid we should have judges down there who actually know and respect the law, who are grown-ups with some experience and some savvy under their belts, who have the moral courage and personal integrity to bite the hand that feeds them when that hand is either stupid or flat-out corrupt.

Oh, no. Let's do what the City Attorney's Office would have us do, instead. Let's get rid of all those damned legal beagles on the bench and replace them with the kind of judges the staff wants to see. Then the only hurdle would be whether we have that many kangaroos in the zoo.

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17 comments
Logic4dallas
Logic4dallas

Ken is right. Topletz owns nearly 300 properties in Dallas and most have a value of around $15,000 to $20,000. If you check the offense and arrest history for those properties you will see that a very large number of them have drug related activity going on. Topletz is well aware of this and refuses to act...which is against the law. Topletz profits on the destruction of neighborhoods and the misery of others. I'm really hoping that the federal government will come in and seize his properties using 21 U.S.C. 856 then bulldoze those wrecks and Topletz's dirty little empire along with them. By the way Jim, the Topletz cases don't get dropped because they are bogus, they get dropped because of legal maneuvering. Your story as a whole is off base but it was completely inaccurate in relation to Topletz. But, then again, I've come to expect grossly liberal slanted stories from you, so at least I'm not shocked. Your stories aren't news, but at least they are entertaining, much like a tabloid.

Logic4dallas
Logic4dallas

Trying to make Topletz out to be the victim of city harassment, then putting the cherry on top by stating that it might have been motivated by the fact that they are Jewish is just extremely poor liberal journalism. The Topletz family knowingly own numerous drug houses and personally make sure that those houses stay in business. They won't fix a house rented by hard working immigrant families, but Topletz himself will show up to make sure a drug dealer has power ran to his house. Do some better digging before you cuddle up to shady businessmen Jim.

Ken
Ken

Jim, my source within the city tells me you're missing the real story. Do a search on the DAD website of Topletz properties. These are drug houses; their utilities aren't on. You don't have to take my word for it. Find out for yourself!

Chevytexas
Chevytexas

Nonsense. The have quotas, and the Assistant City Attorneys have enforcement quotas, and the fee generation system that's being complained about at City Hall is not that violators are going free, but that silly or badly-written unfounded tickets are being dismissed and court costs not recovered. Anyone who knows me, knows that I enjoy the attentions of--and went to school with-- several City legal eagles, each of whose party stories revolve around how much I cost the City each time I appear(ed) there. You're right, those teenagers who sit down with you immediately ("let me help you cut the costs here and offer a settlement of $500 without going to court, where you'll have to pay the costs"), anticipate that the sea of itinerant junk dealers, fence-scavengers and East Dallas property owners are going to, in the majority, plunk down something to just get the hell out. Not I. I like to affordably enjoy my share of taxpayer city attorney, City Code officer if they show up, judge and where possible, any clerks who have to mark the case "Dismissed". It's always an education. My favorite: they wrote a ticket for an historic-district change (I was painting my house) the same Code Officer had approved a month earlier.

Anon
Anon

Not just the CA. If city staff does not know how to properly write a ticket, and more importantly, follow the legally required steps, like proper notice, etc., before the ticket is written, then they should be tossed out. Every time.

Mike
Mike

I was replying to the blanket statement that Munis should not have any criminal prosecutions.

Replay
Replay

sounds like a separation of powers problem.............the administrative/executive branch appoints the judicial system? It is heartening to know that the judges, once appointed, actually do apply some justice.

Alan
Alan

Jim, your examples of fouled-up tickets are code cases, which constitute a small fraction of municipal court cases.  I'll bet 80% or more are traffic cases, and it's pretty rare to pull over the wrong driver for running a stop sign.  Mass dismissal of traffic cases isn't due to high-minded principles of justice.  On the contrary, it's because these judges are nominated by the Judicial Nominating Commission, dominated by defense bars.  Judges know who keeps their paychecks coming, so they do as they're told by defense lawyers.  That ain't justice.  It's a taxpayer rip-off.

Matthew Gunter
Matthew Gunter

I can say that the last ticket I got off on because my attorney, a buddy of mine, knew the judge well. This was at Dallas muni. It was a spare traffic ticket, but I didn't even pay a fine. Best $40 I ever spent.

Halldecker
Halldecker

Quoting Randy Newman,  IT'S MONEY THAT MATTERS, a print-out is given to each Judge,  each City official the first of each month,  how much fine money was levied,  how much has already been collected,  how many cases heard,  dismissed. Every Judge knows exactly where their numbers are,  and what numbers they have to hit to keep their $100k gigs for not much work.   And so does everybody else in the system. We used to worry only about cops writing tickets having quotas.   I fear they'll adopt the Pigmeat Markham theory of Judging: "I'm in such a pissed off mood,  I just gave myself 30 days!"

Anon
Anon

Let me get this straight. City staffers want to fire judges because they do their jobs right? Why not spend a little time, effort, and money training all the various ticket writing employees? Seems like an investment that would pay everyone great dividends. Only valid tickets would be written, they would be upheld in municipal court, and neighborhoods would improve more rapidly as folks come to understand Dallas has professional and effective staff trained in how to best do their jobs. Nope. Can't do that. Makes too much sense. So, cp, keep telling your friends to show up in municipal court. No one should be held accountable for a ticket written by an idiot.

Paul
Paul

Might as well point out that the typical homeowner receives the code compliance complaint after the deadline for compliance. I pointed this out and was told "This is the way that we do things." Part me of goes, what would you it be like to stand in front of the judge and say that the notice was received after the deadline for compliance.

Bill Marvel
Bill Marvel

Jim, Ever get around to fixing that trashcan holder?

J. Erik Jonsson
J. Erik Jonsson

It's the farthest thing from a serious offense imaginable.  There's basically no good reason why any city should have criminal prosecution authority.  Civil fines would be more effective and lucrative when applied to those who can afford them, but that means that the city can't control poor people who can't pay a civil fine anyway.

Mike
Mike

Meant their business. This iPad autocorrect has its own mind.

quash8
quash8

I have been in Dallas's courts for over 20 years, and cannot recall a single time the JNC had more than one defense lawyer on it.

Staff can complain all day about "time served" but the elephant in the room is DPD.  When a docket of 75 or so defendants are there on tickets written by 3 or 4 officers and none of the officers show up, the judges have no choice but to grant the prosecution's motions to dismiss.

 

We just lost some good, experienced and fair judges, replaced by judges that little if any experience in these courts.

Byter
Byter

Uhh no. The reason most tickets are dismissed is because the officer who wrote the ticket is not present to testify against the offender. I've heard that more recently there has been a shift in policy that requires the officers to attend traffic court. The last time I went to traffic court mine and 70 or so others were dismissed, about 83%. 

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