MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon Municipal Court is tucked away on the third floor at 5 N. Gay St., an address it shares with, among others, the police department and city law director. For the most part, it is visited only by citizens who have run afoul of the law, parties in civil cases and officers of the court.
If it sounds like a sleepy little corner of Mount Vernon, however, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. It is in fact a very busy place, and in 2011 the court handled a daunting workload of 8,915 cases. The large majority of those cases, 5,825, were traffic cases that generally don’t entail a court appearance. The remaining cases were divided among criminal cases, 1,551; civil litigation, 1,394; and small claims, 143.
Proceedings in Municipal Court unfold under the guidance of Judge Paul Spurgeon. Prosecutors working on behalf of the city and the citizens of Knox County are Law Director William Smith and Assistant Law Director Rob Broeren. Many of the area’s attorneys, including Public Defender Bruce Malek, advocate in the court for defendants in criminal trials. Others represent plaintiffs and defendants in civil litigation. The court also handles small claims suits.
The court’s name is actually a bit misleading, as it has jurisdiction not only in Mount Vernon but throughout Knox County. About 200 felony criminal cases are handled each year in Common Pleas Court, while all misdemeanor criminal cases, roughly 30 a week, are assigned to Municipal Court.
The Mount Vernon Law Director’s office is responsible for prosecuting misdemeanor criminal cases ranging from minor violations carrying fines of up to $150 to more serious offenses where defendants face up to six months in the county jail. Jail time for multiple offenses against drunk-driving laws can be doubled to 12 months. The law director also represents Mount Vernon and its officials in any civil litigation involving the city.
In a bit of an understatement, Assistant Law Director Rob Broeren characterizes Municipal Court as “a pretty busy place.”
Broeren said that “In my experience, most people in the county are not at all familiar with the court. It’s open to the public, but very few people take advantage of the opportunity to observe.”
Those who do sit in for a Municipal Court session will encounter a businesslike atmosphere where the pace is brisk but people get their day in court. The vast majority of cases are settled administratively or with a bench trial before Judge Spurgeon.
Defendants in misdemeanor criminal cases have a Constitutional right to a jury trial if their offense carries a potential sentence exceeding six months. Under the Ohio Revised Code, that right is also extended to Class 1-4 misdemeanors, which carry sentences of up to 180 days, 90 days, 60 days and 30 days respectively. There is no right to a jury trial for minor misdemeanors which carry no jail time.
Last year, only two criminal cases required jury trials in Municipal Court. Those trials unfold, in general, the same way as felony trials in Common Pleas Court. A jury is selected through the process called voie dire (that which is true) after the judge and attorneys ask questions. The counsel for each side can exercise up to three preemptory challenges without citing a reason, and potential jurors can also be excluded by the judge “for cause.”
“There are no hard and fast rules when looking at jurors,” Broeren said. “You’re looking for people who will accept instruction on the law from the judge and make objective decisions.”
The prosecution’s case is presented by Smith or Broeren, and if the defendants cannot afford independent counsel they are represented by the Public Defender’s Office. In order to obtain a conviction, the prosecution has to gain a unanimous decision from the jury.
One notable difference between misdemeanor and felony trials is that there is no grand jury indictment process for misdemeanor offenses. Once an arrest warrant or citation is made by a law enforcement agency, the matter is automatically referred to Municipal Court. Another difference is that misdemeanor juries have eight members rather than 12.
Among criminal offenses that lie on the borderline between a felony and misdemeanor are robbery and theft. Robbery entails theft using violence or the threat of violence, and is a felony regardless of the amount of property involved. Theft of certain items, such as firearms and credit cards, and theft where a firearm is displayed, are also felonies by definition. Theft of less than $1,000 is petty theft and is a misdemeanor.
The dividing line between misdemeanor and felony is a vital one to a defendant: A felony not only involves harsher penalties, but also entails loss of privileges such as the right to vote, the right to hold public office and the right to bear arms. Felonies include homicide, rape, kidnapping, burglary, many sexual crimes and some drug offenses such as manufacture and distribution. Examples of misdemeanor crimes include domestic violence, petty theft, assault and drug possession, but under certain circumstances they can be charged as felonies. Drug-related convictions generally carry suspension of driving privileges in addition to any fine and jail time.
Minor misdemeanors can be disposed of by a defendant by signing a waiver and paying whatever fine has been assessed. Examples range from failure to comply with dog license regulations to disorderly conduct, and from possession of a small amount of marijuana to an open-container violation.
Most traffic offenses carry only a fine and an assessment of points against a person’s driving privileges. But the most serious offenses, such as vehicular homicide and multiple DUIs, carry jail time. Felony charges are brought if a person is convicted of four DUI offenses within six years or seven within 20 years.
Bruce Malek has been Knox County Public Defender since 2008, and before that he served as Assistant Public Defender for 27 years. City Law Director William Smith has extensive courtroom experience, and his assistant, Rob Broeren, has also worked as an assistant county prosecutor. They often line up on opposite sides in Municipal Court, but express mutual respect.
“Our prosecutors are experienced professionals,” Malek said, “and there is good cooperation there. We sometimes go head-to-head, and we do what we need to do for our clients, but when a case is over we move on to the next one.”
Trials are at the heart of the Municipal Court’s work, but Spurgeon and his staff, along with prosecutors and defense attorneys, handle many other elements of the judicial process, such as arraignments, pre-trial hearings, bond hearings, status conferences and sentencing.
“To get everything to work,” Broeren said, “you need to have an effective court system. It’s an important part of the democratic process.”
One of the essential protections afforded American citizens by the U.S. Constitution is the right to a trial by jury.
In an age of popular “procedural” television police dramas, real-life attorneys sometimes have to deal with what they call the “CSI Effect.”
Mount Vernon Municipal Court is tucked away on the third floor at 5 N. Gay St., an address it shares with, among others, the police department and city law director.
Editor’s Note: This is a series of stories detailing the jury process including grand jury, Common Pleas Court and Municipal Court.