COLUMBIA — At 8:55 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, three men walk into the Columbia Municipal Courtroom, hands and feet shackled, wrists bound to their waists. Two of the men are dressed in jail-issued clothing; faded black stripes against the washed-out white of a generously used jumpsuit. The words “Boone County Jail” are printed across their backs in what used to be a bright orange color. The third man is still wearing his own clothing; he was arrested just the night before.
A guard from the Boone County Sheriff’s Department accompanies the men. He seats the inmates in chairs lined against the wall to the right of the judge’s bench and takes a step back, crossing his arms and wearing a stern look on his face, emotionless.
Four lawyers walk in alongside the assistant city prosecutor, making friendly conversation about the weather and about mutual acquaintances. They all hold envelopes and files stuffed with paperwork. The gallery is open to the public, but empty, as it often is at Municipal Court.
The walls are painted with colorful murals, lightening the mood of the otherwise somber space. Each section of the mural is marked, “K. Hudson, 1934.” The rest of the courtroom décor features shades of brown and gray, and little light comes in through the windows behind the bench, tinted yellow.
“All rise.” Judge Robert Aulgur walks in promptly at 9 a.m. and begins immediately, wasting no time. He calls out names on his three-page docket, and defense lawyers approach one by one. Most defendants aren’t present, and most lawyers ask for a continuance.
It’s a busy day. In December, Aulgur faced almost twice as many cases as he did in July. And it doesn’t appear the caseload will diminish any time soon. Municipal Court Clerk Shara Meyer said several factors are contributing. Those include a crackdown by Columbia police on traffic violations and the addition of red-light cameras to two city intersections.
Before July, Meyer said, the court received between 900 and 1,000 cases per month. Since then, it has averaged between 1,800 and 2,000. As of Nov. 16, the court had a backlog of more than 1,000 cases not yet entered into the system. Andrea Wymer is the only data entry person working to enter those cases into the city’s computer system, and she can’t handle the sudden increase.
“It’s overwhelming. I’m taking it one day at a time,” Wymer said. Her strategy is trying to stay ahead by entering cases into the system two weeks before they actually come to court.
“It’s so hard to keep up,” she said.
Meyer said the backlog is one of the court’s biggest concerns. “It’s harder to assist the public if some cases are in the system and some aren’t,” she said.
At its Nov. 16 meeting, the Columbia City Council voted to modify the city’s budget for fiscal 2010 to give the Municipal Court an additional $200,945 to allow it to hire four new staff members. That brings the court’s total budget for the year to $738,917.
About $28,000 of the increase will be used to rearrange the court office space to accommodate four new workers, who will be hired at various points throughout the fiscal year, which started Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30, 2010. First-round interviews for these positions began Dec. 7, but Meyer doesn’t expect any spots to be filled until at least the first of the year.
Will the extra money and new workers be enough to get the court system back on track?
“With four additional people, it’ll be OK for a little while,” Meyer said. “We’ll evaluate our situation probably every six months and get with the city manager if things get out of control again.”
The City Council on Nov. 16 also agreed to allow the city prosecutor’s office to hire four new staff members. Two of those will be administrative support assistants and two will be new assistant prosecutors.
Assistant City Prosecutor Robert Rinck said he’s looking forward to the extra help.
“Now, we’re getting a job done, but we’re not doing it as well as it could be,” Rinck said. Since the increased caseload, Rinck has spent considerably more time in court, between 20 and 25 hours each week. Before July, he would spend, at most, 15 hours per week in court.
“It’s taken me out of the charging process,” Rinck said. “Instead, people in current temporary part-time positions are doing it. Being in court doesn’t allow me a lot of time to do other things.”
Although the extra four to five hours might not seem substantial, Rinck said ithas influenced his work.
“All municipal ordinance violations come through this office,” Rinck said, emphasizing the word ‘all.’ “It all takes time, and there’s a process to everything.”
Court proceedings can be tedious. For every hour spent in court, the judge spends about one and a half hours of “back-office work,” Meyer said. That includes many different tasks; most of the time, judges assigned a case must review and verify paperwork, send summonses, write letters to attorneys, issue warrants and enter them into the police computer system, prepare records of conviction and, in traffic cases, send them to the Missouri Department of Revenue and complete other general correspondence.
“I’m not worried now, not at this time,” Meyer said. “We have back-up plans if needed, but you need to work with what you’ve got: one courtroom and only these officers.”
One back-up plan for dealing with the caseload is to add night-court hours. Meyer said that would be a last resort.
Trials: They're all taken seriously
At least Meyer’s job doesn’t get boring. She’s been working for the city for 24 years, and with the Municipal Court for 19 years. She has been court clerk for the past 17 years.
“It is still an interesting position after 20 years,” Meyer explained. “People that come in are very interesting sometimes.”
Rinck said he thinks the most interesting cases often involve animal control. People can be cited for having too many animals, harboring dangerous animals or allowing noise violations, among other things.
“Last year we had two monkey-bite cases; that was pretty interesting,” Rinck said.
Emotions often play a part in cases involving animals.
“Personally, I’m an animal lover, so I hate to have to ask people to put a dog down, for example,” Rinck said. “But you can’t have a dog at large with a propensity to bite. … We’re here to make sure ordinances are enforced.”
Despite the emotions involved in animal cases, Rinck said they don’t compare with the more serious trials in circuit court.
“The county court deals with harder things, like assaults, or rapes or murders,” Rinck said. “(In the Municipal Court), you can let your emotions get you passionate about the facts of a case or about a municipal ordinance, and you argue those facts. But you can’t let them play that part on the defendant. It’s not too hard.”
Most Municipal Court cases are traffic violations. The most serious involve driving while intoxicated or driving with suspended or revoked licenses. The court also regularly sees cases of misdemeanor assault, stealing, littering, trespassing, marijuana possession, minors in possession of alcohol or violations of property maintenance, animal and livestock codes.
“The Municipal Court is where most people have interaction with the court system,” Rinck said. “Anything that comes through the Municipal Court is against a municipal ordinance. … Anybody can end up coming through here.”
Rinck said Municipal Court cases don’t involve criminal violations but they can carry punishments that include jail time, fines or points against drivers licenses. Defendants still have protections under the law, such as the right to an attorney and the right to trial by jury. Luckily for those involved in court preparations, jury trials are rare in Municipal Court.
“(Jury trials) can take days to prepare for,” Rinck said. “And the cost of a jury trial, if a defendant is found guilty, is very expensive. Most people, if even they’re found guilty, are just happy their case was heard in court. … It’s their right to have that time in court.”
Few people who receive tickets actually have a trial, though.
“Most people, if they do get a ticket, own up to it. People make mistakes, we’re all human,” Rinck said. “If a person chooses to plead guilty, they pay their fine and go on their way.
“Municipal court trials are taken seriously. Each case is important to someone, affects someone. No one thinks they’re little things.”
Taking it all in stride
After handling almost all the cases on his docket, the judge turns to the men in shackles sitting to his right. All three are holding pamphlets in their hands.
“Have you read your rights?” Aulgur asks the inmates. He then explains the process they are about to face, just to be certain they do understand. He assumes no prior knowledge and intricately explains each step, each possible choice. He even pauses to define certain terms.
Aulgur takes his time, as one by one he calls their names and they approach his bench. Everything the defendant says, the judge repeats back to be certain he understands the information given to him. He asks questions of the defendant’s lifestyle.
“This is your fifth conviction … since 2008,” he notices on the record of one defendant. “Are you planning on doing anything about this?”
“Are you employed?”
“Where are you living?”
After another defendant pleads guilty to a charge of trespassing, Aulgur questions him once again, making sure the defendant knows the consequences of his plea.
“You understand that I can’t accept your plea of guilty unless you feel you actually are guilty, right?” he asks.
“By pleading guilty you give up your rights. That means there will be no trial. There is no chance of appeal of my sentencing on a plea of guilty, the protection of your presumption of innocence is forfeited, and you will receive the punishment I give. Do you understand?”
In another case, Aulgur asks the defendant’s opinion on his own sentencing. “What I’m inclined to do is give you seven days in the Boone County Jail. You’ve already served five, you have two left. Do you want me to do that?”
“Yes, sir,” the defendant says.
During a trial that same morning, Aulgur writes notes at his bench. He’s jotting things down as witnesses speak, as well as when he responds to closing arguments. Here, too, he repeats the facts of the case, starting each sentence with “I’m convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that…”
The judge makes his final ruling, in this case acquitting the defendant. Rinck takes it in stride.
“You have to do your best as a lawyer but take whatever decision the judge makes,” Rinck said. “Sometimes you’ve got to just let the chips fall.”