Editor’s Note: This op-ed first appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post. As of Monday afternoon, it had received more than 200,000 clicks on the Post’s website.
ByEd Spillane, Presiding Judge, College Station Municipal Court
Melissa J. showed up in my court last year with four kids in tow. Her children quietly watched from a nearby table while I spoke with her. The charges against her — driving with an invalid license, driving without insurance, not wearing a seat belt, failure to use a child safety seat properly and four failures to appear — were nothing unusual for municipal court. Nor were her fines of several thousand dollars.
But for Melissa, who had a low-paying job and a husband in prison, and who looked like she hadn’t slept in days, that number might as well have been several million.
As a municipal judge in College Station, I see 10 to 12 defendants each day who were arrested on fine-only charges: things like public intoxication, shoplifting, disorderly conduct and traffic offenses. Many of these people, like Melissa, have no money to pay their fines, let alone hire a lawyer.
College Station Municipal Court Judge Ed Spillane doesn’t want you to go to jail. If you run afoul of the law, he just wants you to come to court so the best-case scenario can be worked out.
In this edition of the podcast, Judge Spillane talks about why he offers a warrant amnesty period. He also describes the toughest cases he sees, some of the biggest misconceptions about the court, and his many experiences with “helicopter parents.”
As a judge, I see a number of people after they’ve been arrested and are in jail on an outstanding warrant. Often, they are very happy to see me since they associate me with releasing them from jail. I’ll ask them why they didn’t come to College Station Municipal Court in the first place and the response I hear so many times is either:
“I didn’t think ignoring a ticket could get you arrested,” or
“I was saving up money and, until I had the money to pay the fine, I wasn’t going to court to make my plea.”
Most Class-C misdemeanors are handled through citizens receiving a ticket rather than being arrested. These include offenses like a minor in possession of alcohol, disorderly conduct due to noise, assault, theft under fifty dollars, and most traffic offenses and city ordinance violations — all criminal offenses in Texas. When you sign the ticket promising to appear, that signature acts as your promise to appear in court, versus being arrested and posting a bond guaranteeing your appearance.