The Campaign For DA

12.09.2008

Municipal / JP Courts Drive Me Crazy

I think people get screwed in municipal and JP courts all the time. And I'm not picking on Wise County courts, it's the same everywhere. Why we put up with it is beyond me. Take this guy. He gets a ticket for possession of drug parapharnalia. This is the way the system is supposed to work: He could demand a trial before a judge or a jury and require the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that (1) the item was in fact drug paraphernalia, and (2) that he intentionally and knowingly possessed it (that is, he exercised care, custody and control over it.) Now, let's say he is found guilty. Then it's time for the punishment phase of the trial. The fine can be anywhere between $0 and $500. That's important. It can be ANY AMOUNT within that range. Things for the judge or the jury to consider would be the defendant's age, his criminal history, and the type of paraphernalia (was it rolling papers or was it a bong the size of a Louisville slugger?) But for some reason, in Texas the judge sends out a notice which in essence says, "I have no idea what the facts of the case are because I'm prohibited by law from knowing the facts before a trial begins, but I'm going to assume you are guilty and let you pay a fine of $508 fine." (I guess court costs are included in there to get over the maximum amount of $500.) In the perfect world, the letter would come from a prosecutor who says he has reviewed the case and is offering a plea bargain of $508. But it would also tell the the defendant has every right to reject the plea offer and demand a trial. This letter is even further complicated because the Defendant missed his first court date. The only repercussion of that act is the creation of a new charge of Failure to Appear ---- he cannot be "automatically" found guilty on the paraphernalia charge by default. This ain't civil court -- he still has the right to a trial. But this letter instead says that if he doesn't pay the $508 (on the paraphernalia charge that he has not been found guilty of) then he will be arrested on a violation of Promise to Appear and fined $377 extra dollars (which doesn't make sense because he is entitled to a different trial on whether he failed to appear for a court date of which he had legal notice and, if found guilty, have a judge a or jury assess a fine between $0 and $500.)