When it comes to managing Mayor’s Court cases, North Ridgeville does a more than efficient job.
In the Supreme Court of Ohio’s 2010 annual report, which was released July 8, statistics show the number of North Ridgeville cases processed and then removed from the docket – known as the clearance rate – was 102 percent (the statewide average was 100 percent). The total number of new filings, transfers and case reactivations for the year equaled 3,662, while terminations of those cases, and those carried over from 2009, totaled 3,731.
According to www.supremecourt.ohio.gov, mayor’s courts, of which there were 320 in Ohio in 2010, were established for “assisting in the efficient administration of justice … (and to) hear only cases involving violations of local ordinances and state traffic laws.”
To better understand how North Ridgeville Mayor’s Court functions, the North Ridgeville Press conducted several interviews after spending the evening of July 13 at City Hall in order to observe Mayor’s Court while it was in session. Nearly every seat in the extremely quiet room was occupied by the 5 p.m. start time. Police auxiliary officers manned the back of the room, as well as stood in front of the bench.
Magistrate Renee Zafarana entered and explained the process to all the gathered offenders, who ranged in age from young adults to senior citizens. City Prosecutor Brian Moriarty held conferences with each offender as they were sent to him in groups of five. Those confidential sessions afforded the offender a chance to explain himself or herself before facing the magistrate, who imposed the final sentence or fine.
“The prosecutor will make recommendations to me based on those facts,” the magistrate said, going on to emphasize payment of all fines and court costs was expected that same evening. “As long as you pay, you don’t need to come back to court.”
One offender apparently didn’t heed the message the first time. She was escorted by a police officer to the court room, bound in handcuffs and wearing a black-and-white-striped city jail jumpsuit and flipflops. The young woman failed to pay a prior $500 fine and was picked up at her home through a bench warrant. She and the magistrate reached agreement on yet another payment plan. That $500 grew that evening to more than $600, though, because of additional court costs incurred, including a $50 bench warrant fee.
Another offender, with counsel from his personal attorney, had a larger traffic violation reduced to reckless operation. Though it was a lesser plea, he was still assessed, among other things, a $1,000 fine, $85 in court costs and 30 days in jail (suspended) on condition of one year of good behavior.
It was obvious the magistrate was willing to give a break to people who could not pay their fines immediately and in full. For several cases, Zafarana offered small payment amounts based on the level of the offender’s ability to pay. Even though fines were often $150 or less, many of the offenders asked for up to several months in order to pay the court.
Police Chief Mike Freeman answered questions the next day about what the North Ridgeville Press observed.
“A bench warrant is when somebody doesn’t appear in court (for a prior violation),” he explained of the woman who stood in jail garb the night before. “When we pick them up, they’re brought here. If they’re not able to post bond, they’ll sit in jail until they’re heard at court.”
Several people appeared before Zafarana for speeding, having been charged for going 39 mph in a 35-mph zone. It seemed unlikely, however, all of them had been going that same speed, incurring the same violation.
“My guess is, the (city) prosecutor is cutting them a break,” Freeman theorized. “We don’t write tickets for that low of a speed. Plea deals are a fact of life. For some people, paying a fine can be downright (financially) crippling. Having to pay $145 with a reduced plea is, I think, sometimes a compassionate approach.”
He doesn’t have a lot of sympathy, however, for those who blatantly ignore their financial responsibilities.
“If you’re not taking care of your obligations, we will come out and get you,” Freeman said. “There are options you could have taken instead of not showing up in court. The court is willing to work with you. We will go out of our way to pick you up. We take it seriously.”
Law Director Andrew Crites said July 14 the city prosecutor’s role “is to represent the city” at mayor’s court.
“Everybody is directed to speak to the prosecutor to give them an opportunity to plead their case,” Crites said. “If they have an issue to contest, they can discuss it with the city prosecutor. They negotiate. The prosecutor will evaluate the case, their defense, our position and take into consideration the probability of prevailing in Elyria Municipal Court. We will offer a reasonable compromise. It’s up to (Moriarty’s) discretion as to how he wants to do it.”
He went on to say “collection (of the fines) is a huge problem,” that running the mayor’s court department is “a break-even deal.” A North Ridgeville Press analysis of the 2010 revenues for mayor’s court shows the city does a bit better than just breaking even.
According to information from the city auditor’s office, the mayor’s court department expended $371,904 in 2010, but it took in revenues of more than $546,700. After subtracting fees that were required to be paid to the state of Ohio, however, North Ridgeville Mayor’s Court actual revenues were $498,111. The mayor’s court budget for 2011 is $405,000 and covers salaries, benefits, travel, operating supplies, state fees and other funds. Any excess revenues received are deposited into the city’s General Fund.