Town Court metes out own brand of justice
In a hot, steamy room, with an overburdened window air conditioner and a standing-room-only crowd spilling out the rear door, Town of Bath Municipal Court is called to order on July 18.
As he does the third Wednesday morning of each month, Town Police Chief James Minton instructs everyone to turn off their cell phones and remove their hats.
The judge today is Harley Staggers, Jr., a former congressman. His brother, Daniel Staggers, usually presides, but is on vacation this week.
Staggers sits at the front table in a black suit. To his left is Town Clerk Margie Allgyer in a floral dress with a large stack of citations in front of her.
At a small desk a few feet away sits Attorney Steve Mathias of Martinsburg, the town prosecutor, also wearing a black suit. Next to Mathias are three uniformed town officers — Chief Minton, Corporal Craig Pearrell and part-time Officer Ken Winter.
Councilman David Crosby wanders into the room to observe and is drafted by Allgyer to act as court recorder.
The crowd of defendants sits pensively, though some are forced to stand against a wall or wait outside until their case is called. The crowd represents a cross-section of Morgan County – young, old, rich, poor, black, white, men, women.
Some men wear suits and some women wear dresses, but the majority are dressed casually, even by West Virginia standards, in jeans, cutoffs, tee shirts, tank tops, camouflage pants and work clothes.
The judge rises to address the crowd, and thus begins another session of Bath Municipal Court.
How do you plead?
Judge Staggers begins by explaining that each will be called to the front and required to enter a plea. Those who plead guilty will be dealt with immediately. Those who plead not guilty will have to wait for their day in court until all the guilty pleas are handled.
Staggers says this is a criminal court and you are presumed innocent. If you plead not guilty, the burden of proof is on the prosecutor to prove beyond any reasonable doubt the town's case. But, Staggers counsels, he is the sole decision maker and will set the sentence after hearing the testimony.
He sits, Allgyer hands him the day's docket, and Staggers calls out the first case.
Pay now or pay later?
The first defendant, a young man in work clothes, approaches the bench and stands before the judge. Staggers asks if he understands the rights just explained.
The man says yes, and the judge asks him how he pleads to the crime of possession, with no drug specified, and to several traffic violations.
"I plead guilty," the man replies.
Allgyer hands the defendant a paper explaining his rights and asks him to sign and initial it.
The paper is then handed to the judge who also signs. The judge then asks the prosecutor what sentence he recommends.
Mathias informs the judge that the usual sentence for the first offense possession of the unspecified drug is a $50 fine, plus court costs and six months unsupervised probation.
The judge agrees and passes the sentence. He informs the defendant that although the probation is unsupervised, the town has the right to perform a drug test at any time during the six month period.
Allgyer adds up the fines for the
traffic violations and the possession charge. The total is $357. She asks
the man if he will pay the fine today. He tells her that he would like more time.
Allgyer hands him a new form specifying a 30-day grace period that he must fill out and sign. He is then taken into the town police station for more paperwork involving the probation period.
Another defendant is called.
And so it goes...
Points or no points?
Most people plead guilty, but the few who plead innocent are told to wait while the guilty are processed. Charges vary, fines vary. Some pay, some ask for more time.
Staggers asks each defendant if they understand their rights. A few people who arrived late and did not hear his opening remarks are explained their rights before they plead.
In some cases, police explain mitigating circumstances that may affect the sentence.
For example, a woman, who accidentally cut herself and had no one to take her to the hospital, is driving to the hospital with an out-of-date inspection sticker. She also runs a stop sign. After he pulls her over, the officer drives her to the hospital.
The judge dismisses the charge for the inspection sticker but upholds the stop sign violation.
In several cases involving teenagers, the police recommend a weekend of community service.
About one-third of those called are not present. If their payments are not received by mail in a few days, an additional $25 fine will be assessed for not showing up.
Defendants cited for moving violations are offered an "alternative disposition." If they complete a driver's safety course within 90 days and return a certificate to the town clerk, no charges will be forwarded to the Division of Motor Vehicles and they will get no points against their licenses.
Everyone who receives this offer accepts the conditions. Fines and costs are still collected and, in many cases time extensions granted.
Time moves slowly, and the room gradually empties. Those still in the room are uncomfortable, hot and sweaty. Finally, the ones who plead not guilty are ready for trial.
Witnesses are sworn in and the prosecutor presents the police case against the defendant. The ticketing officer is called to testify about the circumstances.
After the prosecutor rests his case, the defendant is allowed to question the officer and present his argument. The defendant may be represented by a lawyer if they choose, but none are today.
In one case, a man from Pittsburgh says he thought the electronic sign, set up near the post office to inform drivers of their speed, was a speed limit sign.
He argues that electronic speed limit signs are common in Pittsburgh. He was cited for doing 40 in a 25 mph zone. He says he believed the 40 on the sign was the speed limit, not his speed.
The judge's ruling is "guilty."
In another case, an 18-wheeler driver was pulled over for passing a car on the right when it was making a left turn into the post office. At first, the officer said he was going to write a warning ticket.
But after a comment from the driver — which the driver denied making — the officer wrote a citation.
Again the ruling is guilty. The judge rules it was within the officer's discretion what kind of ticket to write, even if he originally mentioned a warning ticket.
No one who pleads "not guilty" wins their case today.
A very long day
If you are ticketed for a minor traffic violation by a town officer, you have the option of sending in the payment-in-full, or appearing in court.
You must appear in court to contest a ticket or request an extension of time to pay. Those cited for drug possession are always required to appear.
Bath Town Municipal Court starts at 9 a.m., and it is past noon by the time the last case is heard on July 18. If the 25 or so people who didn't show up had been there, the proceedings would have lasted several more hours.