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Wednesday, December 19,2012

New law would eliminate Amesville’s mayor’s court

By Jim Phillips

New state legislation, assuming it's signed by Gov. John Kasich as expected, will mean the end of one of Athens County's mayor's courts, the one in Amesville.

The new law, attached as a rider to an unrelated judicial bill, passed the Ohio Senate and House last week. If signed into law, it will eliminate mayor's courts in towns with populations of 200 or fewer. This includes Amesville, which according to the 2010 Census has 154 residents.

"That's my understanding, too," said village Mayor Gary Goosman Tuesday. He said revenues generated by the court are "not a lot" – but that in a tiny village like Amesville, their loss will be felt.

Goosman estimated the Amesville mayor's court handles about four or five citations a month, mostly speeding tickets. Some of the fine money goes to the state, leaving Amesville with about $60 to $70 per ticket. Goosman estimated this works out to somewhere between $2,000 and $4,000 a year, in a village whose annual budget is only around $180,000. The village would still get some of the fine money if the cases went through county municipal court, but its portion would be smaller, he said, and it might actually lose money on cases in which a defendant appeals the mayor's court's ruling.

"It is somewhat significant," Goosman said of the revenue, noting that in the last couple years the state has made major cuts to local government funding.

"When you keep cutting, all these things add up," he said. "Each one of them is just a drop, but they all add up to be problematic in difficult times."

The rider to eliminate the smallest mayor's courts was added by a representative from Strongsville, a Cuyahoga County suburb. It appears to have been aimed at least in part at getting rid of the mayor's court in Linndale, a tiny village along Interstate 71 that for decades has had a reputation as a notorious "speed trap," which generates large fine revenues by stopping speeders on the short stretch of highway that passes through town.

Amesville is one of nine communities across Ohio small enough to lose their mayor's courts if the new law is signed. Since 2004, the state has required mayor's courts to register annually and file quarterly reports with the Supreme Court.

Submitting caseload reports for last year were mayor's courts in six Athens County communities – Amesville, Buchtel, Glouster, Jacksonville, Nelsonville and Trimble.

It appears other mayor's courts were operating in the county as well, including courts in Albany, Chauncey and Coolville, but they are not listed by the Supreme Court as having filed reports for 2011. (Albany dropped out of the records last year after having filed from 2004-2010; Coolville filed from 2006-08; and Chauncey from 2006-07. Coolville Mayor Tracy Taylor confirmed Wednesday that the court there is still in operation.)

Ohio law allows mayors of municipal corporations that have 100 residents or fewer, and lack a municipal court, to conduct mayor's courts even if the mayor is not an attorney. The state does require basic legal training for mayors who preside over courts.

These are not courts of record, and can hear only cases involving violations of local ordinances or state traffic laws (this includes first-offense drunk driving). Anyone convicted in a mayor's court can appeal to the municipal or county court with jurisdiction over the municipality. In 2011, 318 mayor's courts were registered and submitted reports.

Statistic kept by the Supreme Court show that mayor's courts here vary widely in the volume and mix of cases they handle.

Nelsonville, for example, handles an average of more than 500 cases a year, of which more than half are something other than minor traffic offenses – either misdemeanor crimes (the great majority) or first-offense OVIs (only about 30 a year).

The next highest-volume courts are those of Glouster and Buchtel, which both see well over 300 cases a year. While less than 8 percent of Buchtel's cases are for something other than non-OVI traffic citations, more than 40 percent of Glouster's caseload is made up of misdemeanors and impaired-driving cases.

Albany, by contrast, sees about 70 cases a year in its mayor's court, all but about 2 percent of them traffic citations.

"We just enforce our own ordinances, and we occasionally issue a speeding ticket or a stop sign (citation) or something like that," said Albany Mayor Tim Kirkendall.

Unlike Goosman, Kirkendall does not preside over mayor's court himself – though he's had the training that qualifies him to do so. Instead, the village hires a magistrate to oversee the monthly sessions.

Kirkendall noted that the village, as a matter of policy, has chosen to handle no OVI cases in its mayor's court.

"We just hand those over to municipal court," he explained. "Quite honestly, the way I feel about it is, I don't have the expertise to do that. I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that."

Local mayor's courts have occasionally been problematic, the most notable recent case being that of Chauncey. In 2007 its mayor's court heard the case of a man who had been stopped for a traffic violation, and had admitted to an officer that the more than $3,000 he was carrying was illegal drug-sale profits. The court allowed the man to plead to a misdemeanor drug-paraphernalia offense, in return for his forfeiting the money to the village.

Then-county Prosecutor C. David Warren filed a civil action against the village, arguing that the man should have been charged with a felony. The man was later indicted, and the village and county agreed to split the money.

Current county Prosecutor Keller Blackburn said a mayor's court provides benefits, but can be susceptible to abuses.

"When run properly, it does allow for revenue to remain in the local community," Blackburn said.

On the negative side, he said, "the concern is abuse of process." He said he sometimes gets inquiries from Athens Law Director Pat Lang about cases that have been handled as misdemeanors, questioning whether they should have been charged as felonies.

As for cases in which money is forfeited to mayor's courts, Blackburn said, "It's not supposed to happen. Except for OVIs, there are really not a lot of guidelines for forfeiting money in misdemeanor cases."

He added that sometimes cases being handled in mayor's courts can create confusion in other cases involving the same defendant. One example might be a person with multiple drunk-driving offenses, whose first case was adjudicated in a mayor's court.

A non-attorney mayor hearing the case, Blackburn suggested, might be more likely than a judge to neglect to warn the defendant that having too many prior DUI convictions too close together can open the person up to possible felony charges for future drunk-driving offenses. And if a defendant in a mayor's court waives his right to a trial without consulting an attorney, he said, the conviction might not count later toward upping a subsequent offense to felony status.

Generally, Blackburn said, local mayor's courts are run properly. As for Linndale-type speed traps, he said, a distinction must be made between a town that is baiting speeders – by, for example, setting a speed limit too low on a stretch of road – and one that is energetically enforcing a reasonable speed limit.

"I don't consider (Buchtel) a speed trap, but a lot of people get pulled over in Buchtel," he said.

Note: Gov. Kasich did sign the legislation into law on Thursday, Dec. 20.


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