8 studies in Municipal Courts

There is no separation of powers in our city government. The city manager, the police, and the judges are all employees of the city. The Council is the sole branch of government. The job of the judges is to collect fines. An attempt to subject them to an occasional retention election failed in the state legislature in the last session.

Here are eight stories of people caught up in the municipal court system: https://goldwaterinstitute.org/citycourt/ They will frighten you, and give you reason to support the state legislature’s efforts to reform municipal government.

City Court: Money, Pressure and Politics Make it Tough to Beat the Rap link: https://goldwaterinstitute.org/article/city-court-money-pressure-and-politics-make-it-tough-to-beat-the-rap/

Unlike other Arizona judges, municipal court judges never face voters. They work for City Hall and their job is to collect fines and the associated court costs. They serve two year terms, renewable at the pleasure of the City Council. The rapacity of the municipal court of Ferguson, Missouri, where fines contributed about a quarter of the city budget, probably contributed to the riots in 2014. Half of all court cases in Arizona are heard in municipal courts. Misdemeanors can be criminal, such as violating smoking ordinances in Mesa. Municipal courts can impose up to six months jail time and $2,500 in fines (but court costs can boost the bill). A criminal misdemeanor conviction in a municipal court means a criminal record. The conviction rate for speeding tickets (not a criminal misdemeanor) is 88%. Suspending driving licenses is the only tool municipal courts have for enforcing fines. Pedestrian or bicycling misdemeanors can result in suspended driving licenses. Driving on a suspended license is a crime. Trial is before a judge with no jury. Arresting officer testifies, defendants give their side. Maricopa County rarely overturns a verdict.
Tempe, along with Scottsdale, Gilbert, and Tucson, appear to run profitable courts. Two municipal court judges have been disbarred by the Arizona Supreme Court, one of them from Tempe.

Prosecutors Push Jail for Disabled Vietnam Veteran over Zoning Violations link: https://goldwaterinstitute.org/article/prosecutors-push-jail-for-disabled-vietnam-veteran-over-zoning-violations/

Robert Stapleton wouldn’t sell his home to developers (Paul Johnson, former mayor of Phoenix and friend of Scottsdale mayor Phil Gordon) and he got six criminal charges for zoning violations (5′ fence,weeds in his yard, fading paint, failing to park vehicles on a dust-free surface), each threatening 6 months in jail and $2,500 in fines. Convicted in Phoenix Municipal Court: probation for 3 years and a $15,000 fine. Johnson meanwhile got permission for a 6′ fence around his development. Jury trials not available for civil citations or for criminal when the maximum sentence is 6 months, despite guarantees in both US and AZ constitutions.

Elections Protect Judges From “Good-Old-Boy” System Of Appointment link: https://goldwaterinstitute.org/article/city-court-elections-protect-judges-from-good-old-boy-system-of-appointment/

Yuma is the only city in AZ where municipal judges are elected. Merit selection means a commission prepares a list of qualified candidates and the governor chooses. Then they face retention elections. Competitive elections require judge to raise money and campaign.

‘Outrageous’ Police Conduct Not A Concern For Scottsdale Judge link: https://goldwaterinstitute.org/article/city-court-outrageous-police-conduct-not-a-concern-for-scottsdale-judge/

Scottsdale police regularly used the parking lot of Randon Miller’s Sushi Brokers restaurant to question and arrest drivers. Randon objected, saying they blocked access to his parking and that it was bad for business. Scottsdale police retaliated by setting up a sting on Miller. They made a fake traffic stop in front of his restaurant, hoping he would react. He did, and was arrested and charged with 9 criminal misdemeanor counts. A year later, the police staged a fake liquor inspection. Miller was not on duty and referred them to his manager. The police persisted in questioning him, he objected and they arrested him again. The stings were disclosed to the municipal court but the judge sentenced Miller anyway, to 10 days in jail, and a $2,250 fine plus court costs. Miller appealed, but Maricopa Superior Court upheld his conviction.

Judges Believe Police Claims and Ignore Video Proof link: https://goldwaterinstitute.org/article/city-court-judges-believe-police-claims-and-ignore-video-proof/

Municipal judges accept police testimony even when contradicted by video evidence. To protect the city from civil liability, it is essential that the police victim be convicted of some charge, such as disorderly conduct or resisting arrest.

Shaky Cases Still Get ‘Rubber Stamp’ Convictions in Traffic Court link: https://goldwaterinstitute.org/article/city-court-shaky-cases-still-get-rubber-stamp-convictions-in-traffic-court/

Appeals by the defendant are rare because it is always cheaper just to pay the fine, but successful appeals are even rarer. The judges must fail to do their job.

Arizona Cities Continue to Prosecute People Under Illegal Statute link: https://goldwaterinstitute.org/article/city-court-arizona-cities-continue-to-prosecute-people-under-illegal-statute/

ARS 28-1595(C) required passengers, pedestrians and bystanders to produce ID if the arresting officer had reasonable cause to believe they were involved in a traffic crime. The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that law unconstitutional in 2003. Nevertheless, Tempe police used that law to arrest a bicyclist in 2011. (Tempe later paid him $20,000 in compensation.) Scott DeMars was convicted under the law by a Mesa municipal judge in 2016. It is probable that the conviction was designed to stop him from filing a lawsuit, as a conviction makes it hard to find a lawyer or to collect civil damages.

Misdemeanor Convictions Lead to Lifelong, ‘Beyond Horrific’ Consequences link: https://goldwaterinstitute.org/article/city-court-misdemeanor-consequences/

Scottsdale police again set up a sting, this time against a massage therapist. She was accused of offering sex for money but there was no evidence, only her word against the arresting officer’s. Scottsdale municipal court convicted her, anyway. The criminal conviction forced her to drop out of her nursing program and to give up her license as a massage therapist. She now cleans houses. Lake Havasu City municipal court issued a restraining order in a custody dispute which was itself a violation of an interstate compact, but it nevertheless proved a nightmare to the father. A Scottsdale judge placed a restraining order on a member of an HOA that effectively forced her to sell.