Clinton County Municipal Court handles a lot of cases. It amounts to a few thousand different matters every month.
These range from seat belt tickets to preliminary hearings for the most serious felony cases, some of which are reported in the newspaper.
When the articles are published, I always get asked, “Why did you do that?” That is a fair question; I work for the people of Clinton County, and you have a right to know.
Most cases are traffic citations. Most of those go through without me seeing them at all; that is because people pay their ticket instead of going to court.
We have a set fee schedule for those types of tickets. If the person pays the “waiver” amount, the case is over. Sometimes at the end of the paragraph, it states, “The case was waived by defendant.” That means I never met that person.
In some cases, the person comes to court and pleads guilty their very first time here. In those cases, I have only one paragraph of information — sometimes less — upon which to base a sentence.
I ask if they have anything to say. Usually, they don’t say much. Most police agencies do not send an officer to these hearings, and when they do, it is not the officer who wrote the ticket or complaint.
I base the sentence upon what they did, as described in the paperwork, and on anything presented at the hearing. If it doesn’t make it to the courtroom, it doesn’t get considered. Normally the offenses are the same, and normally the sentences are the same.
If a case goes beyond one hearing, it usually involves lawyers. The state always has a lawyer, called the “prosecutor.” The defendant usually has the public defender, but sometimes hires a lawyer of their choosing. Usually, they have a meeting or two before anything happens in the courtroom.
Most cases end with a plea of guilty to something. Then the lawyers present reasons why the person should have one sentence or another, and I tell them my decision. Most of the time the same sentence applies to the same conduct, so when you read about it, you may notice that the same thing happens to several different people.
Sometimes something different happens at sentencing. That’s because sometimes the facts of that situation are different than normal. It could be a first offense, or it could be a 12th. Most folks would agree that if you are being punished for something for the 12th time, the punishment should be more severe.
Sometimes I don’t impose the punishment at all. Like everyone else, I take a vacation day occasionally.
Recently there was a case reported in the newspaper, and people kept asking me about it. It happened while I was on vacation with my family, and I had no idea what happened or why. I was not there.
When I go on vacation, the Supreme Court assigns another judge to hear the cases while I am gone. Most of the time, the news reports do not say which judge decided the case.
Recently I got a letter from a local group which disagreed with a decision I made in a trial. The accused person was found “not guilty,” and the group didn’t like it.
Of course, they had absolutely no idea what happened in court because none of them bothered to attend. None of them were witness to the alleged crime. But they all somehow formed the opinion that the person should have been found guilty.
Some folks have nothing to say unless they are complaining. Then their complaint is not based in law or in reason, but on their emotions and their personal view of how the world should be.
Usually, you can spot that kind of person on social media arguing with someone. These people have a right to say whatever they want, but they do not have a right to influence the justice system. Their letter has been recycled.
I hope this article helps you understand a little bit of what happens in court. All sessions of court are open to the public, and every person is welcome to attend. Cases begin at 9 a.m. most weekdays, and occur throughout the day. Our busiest times (and usually the most entertaining ones) are Tuesday and Wednesday mornings at 9 a.m.
Mike Daugherty is Judge of the Clinton County Municipal Court.