Advisory Opinion On Municipal Court Accountability

municipal courtAdvisory Opinion Holds Municipal Court Judges’ Accountable

An advisory opinion regarding municipal court judge accountability was issued March 4, 2014 by the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission.  The advisory opinion addresses three questions regarding the level of accountability placed on municipal court judges in reference to supervision of court personnel and operations, particularly where they involve affording defendants in municipal court their Constitutional Rights.

The Opinion answers the following three issues:

Is a part-time municipal judge accountable under the Canons of Judicial Ethics when the judge, court employees, and/or contract probation services engage in a pattern and practice of failing to afford constitutional rights to defendants and follow standard procedures required by the rules of court and statutes?

Does the fact that the judge is part-time, has no hiring nor firing authority over the city magistrate-clerk, or the fact the judge is not consulted in the selection and use of a private probation company alleviate the judge’s ethical accountability for the actions of the clerk or the private company employees?

Can a municipal court judge ethically continue to sit as municipal judge where the procedures of the court present multiple concerns regarding the violation of defendants’ fundamental constitutional rights?

The Judicial Inquiry Commission answered that part time municipal court judges are accountable under the Alabama Canon of Judicial ethics where court personnel engage in a pattern and practice of depriving defendant’s of their constitutional rights.  Additionally, the advisory opinion states that the fact that the municipal court judge does not have hiring or firing powers over court personnel, is a part-time judge, or does not control a private probation service does not alleviate the municipal court judge’s responsibility.  Lastly, the advisory opinion states that a municipal court judge may not ethically continue to sit as municipal judge where the procedures  of the court result in obvious violations of defendants’ fundamental constitutional rights.

The opinion is likely the result of recent lawsuits against municipalities over the treatment of defendants by municipal courts and particularly private probation companies who have contracted with the municipal court to administer the collection of fines, probation fees, and to supervise those on probation.  In a number of municipal courts in Alabama, defendants who could not pay their fines were placed on probation in order to allow them to make periodic payments toward the total fines.  However, the additional fees added by the private probation companies and the municipal court created situations where the money kept adding up and the defendants were constantly falling further and further behind, and ultimately having their probation revoked.

The opinion goes on to outline certain approved practices in regard to probation, private probation, pre-trial diversion, etc.  Speaking about probation and private probation companies, the opinion states:

That probation be used only when a suspended sentence is imposed following conviction of an offense; that probation be imposed only after a properly executed order of conviction has been entered; that all probation orders be executed by the judge at the time the defendant is placed on probation and advised of the conditions of probation; that periods of probation be neither  imposed nor extended beyond the time authorized by law; that petitions for revocation of probation be processed in accordance with due process requirements, including proper notice to the defendant; and written findings of the grounds for revocation of probation be recorded .

That private probation or other services used by the court be reviewed on a consistent basis to ensure there is no usurpation of the authority of the court, and to prevent such agencies from creating the perception that they have the authority to make the final determination of conditions of probation or to incarcerate offenders for noncompliance with court orders; that such agencies not be delegated the authority to make indigency determinations or other determinations relative to incarceration for noncompliance; and that all actions regarding probation be subject to review by the judge to ensure that such actions do not violate an offender’s rights of due process or equal protection of the law.

The advisory opinion is hard hitting, because, with the exception of major metropolitan areas, municipalities hire part-time municipal judges to preside over a municipal court.  Oftentimes procedure in smaller municipal courts is relaxed, and unfortunately, so are constitutional rights.  The advisory opinion serves as a reminder that a defendant’s Constitutional Rights must be safeguarded in even the most local of courts and on the most minor of criminal cases.  It also should be remembered that even in municipal court, a defendant can be sentenced to up to a year in jail and fines can be as high as $6000.00.

The surest way to ensure that a person facing a municipal court charge has their rights protected is to retain an Alabama criminal defense lawyer.

View the Advisory Opinion here  JIC_Opinion_14_926(2)



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