Municipal court meets officials’ expectations
Just over a year after Stevens Point formed a joint municipal court with the village of Plover, officials praise it as everything they hoped it would be.
Municipal courts are widely used in municipalities across Wisconsin for more efficient handling of forfeiture citations – non-criminal offences – and has jurisdiction only over the civil citations issued by the city of Stevens Point and the village of Plover, traffic tickets, first offense OWIs, underage drinking, disorderly conduct and retail theft. The municipal court system provides flexibility, helps better accommodate officer’s schedules and also helps members of the community who wish to contest citations.
Michael McKenna, the Portage County corporation counsel and practicing attorney in Stevens Point, was selected to be the first municipal court judge by the Joint Municipal Court Oversight Committee, Stevens Point Common Council and Plover Village Board in April 2014.
One of the major elements that led to the adoption of a joint municipal court was its user-friendliness for defendants who pass through the system.
While he was pushing for one at the time, former Stevens Point Police Chief Kevin Ruder said municipal courts allow for more interaction with the people and gives them a better sense of justice having had the opportunity to be heard. Even if they lose their case, exit polls have shown a higher satisfaction.
Stevens Point City Attorney Andrew Logan Beveridge said it’s less intimidating for people to deal with him in a one-on-one conference room rather than get shuffled through a large Circuit Court with security checks, large rooms packed with people and a judge sitting high up on the bench.
“(In municipal court) the defendant literally just sits around the corner from the judge. I think it’s a far-less intimidating environment for people,” Beveridge said. “Which I think may have something to do with the good track record we’ve had resolving things without an adversarial process.
“If they came in thinking it was just going to be something where they’d get beat up and have their point of view ignored, I think they leave feeling they got a fair shake. Even if, ultimately, we don’t dismiss the case or whatever it is. People feel it was a little more personable experience,” he said.
“It’s going really well. It has definitely delivered on expectations with regards to efficiency, timeliness of getting on the docket and convenience for the defendants,” said Beveridge.
“Everything has been going very smoothly with the municipal court,” said Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza. “We’re right exactly where we expected to be. I have not heard any complaints yet regarding the procedure. I think people are getting a good feeling knowing they can be heard in a timely manner. It’s exactly what we expected it to be.”
“I’d say the number of pretrial conferences we have is up compared to Circuit Court too,” Beveridge said.
The time for Beveridge to have conferences with defendants has changed from 10 a.m. Monday mornings in the circuit court to 5 p.m. Thursday evenings, which he said has been easier for people to schedule a chance to sit down with him and talk about the circumstances of their cases.
“Obviously some people still say ‘5 p.m. doesn’t work for me because I work second shift’ or whatever it is, it’s impossible to have something that fits everyone but it’s definitely improved compared to what it was before,” Beveridge said.
A pretrial conference is a meeting held between the city attorney, the municipal court clerk and the defendant after an individual pleads not guilty during his initial court hearing. The meeting is a chance for the defendant to give his or her side of the story.
“Once we’ve gotten through all the pleas, we’ll take them back one by one for a pretrial conference, which is essentially just an opportunity for the defendant and myself to discuss what happened. I start almost every single one exactly the same, ‘you plead not guilty, I would just ask you to explain why you plead not guilty and tell me about the situation.”
Sometimes, in cases like tickets for not being able to show proof of insurance, the explanations are as simple as showing him the proof in the meeting, and he’ll usually dismiss the case, he said.
“Sometimes, someone will come in charged with one thing, but there’s extenuating circumstances, and I’ll feel it’s appropriate to change it to a lesser offense,” Beveridge said.
However, the state of Wisconsin has standards he has to abide by. Some offences cannot be dismissed and there is only so far he can lower them.
“We’ve had a handful of trials in the municipal court,” Beveridge said. “But usually we’re able to resolve things at the pretrial conference. I’d say 75 to 80 percent of the time we’ll be able to resolve it via pretrial conference. Even then, most of the ones we weren’t able to resolve there it’s just because we need to get some more information, and we end up resolving it another way.”
“At the same time, our number of trials – or contested cases – has gone down,” he said. “The fines, overall, are lower because of the reduced court costs,” he said. “What formerly would have been, say, a $175 speeding ticket is now $98. So, there’s now a little bit less contentiousness on some of the cases.
“Granted, we took a look at some certain citations that we didn’t want the amount to go too low; such as certain types of disorderly conduct and retail theft, those are still fairly high,” he said. “But I think the officers are more comfortable with some of the traffic citations and writing them now because it’s not such an unreasonable burden anymore.”
Beveridge said officers were having a hard time justifying writing tickets for small offences because, after court costs and surcharges, tickets being processed by the Circuit Courts were very expensive.
For example, if someone were to accidently run a stop sign, the fine would have been about $200, Beveridge said.
“The perception of everyone involved was that it was excessive,” he said.
The trial preparation and court proceedings have been operating smoothly for the municipal court in its first year.
“It’s been functioning really well. We’ll have the clerk right there in the room with us when we conduct pretrial conferences, so we’ve been able to get information right there if needed, we’re able to schedule follow-up appearances immediately because we have the court right there to put meetings on the calendar,” he said.
When in Circuit Court, the conferences would consist of Beveridge and his assistant, so any additional information needed – such as receipt of ticket payments or verification of ticket obligations being met – more meetings would have to be scheduled, defendants would have to retrieve information on their own.
“That’s one of the greatest efficiencies we’ve gotten, having the clerk present,” Beveridge said.
“In general, everything just seems to work a lot better for everyone,” he said. “I know that, for myself and Becky (Kalata, city paralegal), it’s a much more efficient process to work with. We have one municipal court clerk that works on just municipal court clerk matters. So at any time we can instantly get information from her, file documents, set court dates or get meetings with the judge.
“The circuit courts have so much more on their plate with criminal matters, family, small claims, civil litigation, etc., that it’s understandably more difficult for them to respond to everything right away, but with municipal court it’s lightning fast,” he said.