If one member of the City Council gets his way, you may not have to head downtown to fight a traffic ticket next year. You might be able to do it in front of your closest justice of the peace.
The problem, if you ask critics of Dallas' municipal courts, is that the city's court apparatus lacks independence. The judges, prosecutors, clerks and everyone else in the municipal court mechanism get their paychecks from the city of Dallas. The fines they collect from you when you roll through that stop sign, those belong to the city, too. Some of them go to pay for municipal courts.
Dallas City Council Member Philip Kingston, relegated to chairing only the ad-hoc judicial nominating committee when Mayor Mike Rawlings handed down committee assignments for this term, is using the unheralded post to try to fix the conflict of interest and to save some city money.
"My first motivation was to eliminate a courtroom situation in which a defendant faces a judge, prosecutors and witnesses who are all paid by the same entity," Kingston said Monday. "I find that an affront to justice and I don't like it one bit."
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Texas law allows cities to transfes most cases that would ordinarily be handled by municipal courts — think class C misdemeanors like traffic tickets — to county justice of the peace courts. Some cases, like code enforcement citations, would still be left to the city. Were that to happen, the city and county would have to negotiate how to chop up the revenue generated by the court. City staff asked to evaluate the switch said that it would lead to more dismissed cases — justice of the peace courts have higher rates of dismissal than municipal courts — less time on the street for Dallas police officers and inexperienced judges. Municipal judges are required to be attorneys, justices of the peace are not. Moving traffic offenses to county court would also give alleged offenders multiple chances to get out of their tickets, staff said.
"All the municipal courts in the city of Dallas are courts of record. We have lawyers that are sitting in these courts. The JP courts are not courts of record," Dallas Administrative Judge Daniel Solis said. "What's going to happen is that, if I were a defense lawyer, I would look forward to you transferring all of these cases to the JP court. I go down there, set the case for trial and if the officer does show up — if he doesn't show up the case will be dismissed — if he does show up, I plead no contest so the officer's trip is wasted. Then, I appeal the no contest plea to the [Dallas] County Court of Criminal Appeals."
Defendants then would have two chances for the officer issuing the ticket to not show up and get their cases dismissed.
"If I'm a defendant, I'm not going to learn anything except, if I play around long enough, I'm going to get away with it," Solis said.