The Campaign For DA

9.25.2014

My Periodic Rant About JP Courts And Municipal Courts In Texas


JP courts and Municipal courts in Texas handle Class C offenses. Class C means no jail time is possible and the offense is punishable by fine only. Almost all of the offenses those judges handle carry with it a maximum of a $500 fine.

A judge is not a prosecutor. They should be "detached and neutral" which mean he/she should not know a single thing about any criminal case filed in the court other than there is an allegation. They should not advocate one position or another. If called upon, they will preside over a trial to keep it fair.

A prosecutor is the individual which should decide whether a case should be prosecuted. And he should decide what a plea bargain offer should be.  In any Class C case, he has the right to offer a plea bargain of anywhere from a $0 fine to a $500 fine.

But in Texas, every JP or municipal court judge has a fine chart.  You call the court, learn the standard fine, pay it, and you are done. That is clearly illegal under any number of theories. The judge has theoretically pre-judged the case, determined you are guilty, and offered a punishment as a resolution. That's not exactly due process. In essence, the judge is acting as a prosecutor and making a plea bargain offer. Now if the offer came from a prosecutor, that's fine. But a judge can't legally do it despite every JP or municipal judge doing it.

One of these days, the system will be declared illegal.  (Unfortunately, there will be a simple work-around. A citation will be rewritten to read, "Please call the prosecutor's office at [number] if you are interested in a plea bargain." There will then be an employee in that office who will field the call, look at a fine chart, and make the offer. It's the same result, but at least it has the appearance of some semblance of fairness.)