Municipal court now in session: I appeared before my friend, the judge

By John Toth

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I spent a few hours in one of the municipal courts in Brazoria County, using the occasion to collect information and anecdotes to share with my readers.

It was a hearing to determine whether “defendants” want to plead guilty or request a trial. This is the first time I have been to one of these proceedings.

There were about 50 of us. We sat mostly quietly in the courtroom until the court workers finished doing whatever they do. While waiting, I was reading USA Today on my phone.

All but a few people pleaded guilty or no contest, perhaps hoping to get a break from the judge, only to be told to pay the maximum fine. Minors who asked for community service got it automatically, along with a brief lecture on how they should never do what they did again.

One teenager was charged with assault because she slapped someone in the face. Her mom was there to plead with the judge to have mercy because she is a good person who never slapped anyone before. The judge listened patiently and then assessed the maximum financial penalty. Then he granted their request for community service. Let’s just say the girl will be doing community service for a very long time. Slapping someone in the face who then files on you is expensive.

I was impressed with the judge’s philosophy that the offenses of a minor should be shouldered by the minor, not the parent, which is why he granted the community service requests.

Several defendants were there to request defensive driving, and most were granted. However, the clerks at the window can do that also in most cases without those ticketed having to sit and wait all this time.

One man appeared because he missed all his deadlines and court dates. He has been working offshore and has not had any time off. He paid the fine, and was glad to do it. The longer these little cases drag on because you keep missing appearances, the more complicated things become.

I have to give the judge and the clerical and court staff credit for being very polite and friendly. While no one liked that they had to pay, at least they were treated with courtesy.

Then my name was called.

I have known this judge for decades. I used to cover some cases he tried as a lawyer when I worked at the Houston Chronicle. It was a little awkward, but I went up there.

“Folks, this is John Toth, the publisher of The Bulletin,” the judge said.

“Um, your honor, I don’t need the publicity.”

“You still own those defensive driving schools?”

“Yes, I do, sir.” Now, this type of publicity is actually not so bad.

“You are accused of allowing your dog to run unrestrained. How do you plead?

“Well, I didn’t actually allow the dog to do that,” I said. “I was having breakfast and my dog saw a squirrel on the other side of the fence in the lot behind my property and decided to take herself on an unauthorized walk through the fence. No permission was granted.”

One of my neighbors who probably does not have my phone number decided to call 911, and in minutes I had three police cars at my house with their emergency lights on. There I was, standing at my door holding a cup of coffee, wondering why the cops are here.

“Do you have a pit bull with a collar and a red bow around her neck,” the cop asked.

“It’s a pink bow, officer, but that’s probably the same dog,” I replied.

“She is in the lot behind your house. I’m going to have to write you a ticket,” the officer said in a purely business-like fashion. Hey, it’s Sunday morning. Nothing goes on in this little town on Sunday mornings, but three cars with lights on? It looked bad. Police cars are a rare site on our street, especially on Sunday mornings.

“Where is the dog,” I asked the officer.

“She’s still in the lot behind your house. Just get her when you get a chance. Sign here, please.”
The dog came right back and, needless to say, landed in the dog house.

That’s why I was at the court. Now you know. And, you probably guessed it by now. I didn’t want a trial, either. I paid a fine of $137, probably the lowest assessed that afternoon. I didn’t get a break.

That’s the maximum the city charges. It’s posted on the court website.

Did I want a break? Yes, like everyone else in the room. But that would not have been right.
“I love reading The Bulletin every week,” a woman said as I was walking out. “ Thank you for publishing it.”

“Thank you for saying that. You made my day,” I replied as we shook hands.

That was really nice. And, it was made possible by one squirrel, one dog, and one ... neighbor.