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Municipal court, the growing challenges Part 3 of 3

November 15, 2023 - 00:00
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At the Oct. 23 Navasota City Council Meeting, Mayor Bert Miller issued a proclamation recognizing Nov. 6-10 as Municipal Court Week. The Proclamation pointed out that “more people come in contact with municipal courts than all other Texas courts combined and public impression of the Texas judicial system is largely dependent upon the public’s experience in municipal court.”

In this three part series, the Examiner takes a look at the structure, jurisdictional responsibilities and challenges prompted by unlicensed drivers, lack of parental responsibility and juvenile crime as well as the officers of the court who keep the wheels of justice turning.

Like it or not, ready or not, small-town Municipal Courts are seeing an increase in certain behaviors. Those include unlicensed drivers, a lack of parental responsibility and juvenile offenders.

According to Navasota Municipal Judge Pat Gruner, the number of drivers without U.S. citizenship ticketed for driving without a license is increasing. As a judge, she is sworn to uphold state law and that includes imposing fines for driving on public roadways without a license.

Gruner said, “The citizenship process may take 4-5 years or longer. Meanwhile, these people want to get to work and get their children to school; however, they are driving illegally. When an officer stops them and the driver is unable to produce a driver’s license, they write the driver a ticket.”

She continued, “Most of these folks come to City Hall right away and pay the fine but it does not solve the problem.”

Other situations involve parents who fail to properly secure their children in the car or drive intoxicated with children in the car.

Gruner said, “When children are involved, they have no one to advocate for them when their parents do not insure their safety when riding in a car. It falls on the judge and the Court to be the advocate.”

Gruner explained that after admonishing the parent, the appropriate fine is assessed.

She recalled a recent case saying, “A man was cited for passing in a no-passing zone while speeding, with an open container and four minor children not wearing seatbelts, or in a required child safety seat.”

No easy fix

According to Gruner, Navasota Municipal Court sees 4-5 juveniles/minors each month. Juvenile age is 10-16 and Minor is 1718 for most offenses. Cases range from smoking, fighting, driving without a license to theft or possession of alcohol or drug paraphernalia. Texas law requires a parent to appear in court.

Gruner said, “It’s an opportunity to reach and teach. Former Municipal Judge John LeFlore never hesitated to fine bad parents for failing to teach kids right from wrong. Many parents admit in Court they allowed their 15-year old son or daughter to drive with no license or insurance, at night, to go to Bryan or elsewhere.”

Serious crimes by juveniles such as auto theft, carrying a weapon and evading arrest require the juvenile and a parent or guardian to appear in Municipal Court. After rights are read, the young offender may be sent to a juvenile justice facility in Brazos, Montgomery or another county with an open spot; however, this may be in the middle of the night and juvenile facilities are often full.

Gruner said, “The lack of resources for juvenile offenders is a growing problem. Their age is much younger than their street smarts! Present law practically excuses them from criminal responsibility. There are no quick or cheap fixes.”

The RED class

For the past two years, Gruner has used Reality Education for Drivers (RED) as a sentencing tool for drivers aged 17-25 who come to her court for excessive speed – 90 to 120-plus mph.

The free class is offered by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, TxDOT and WATCH UR BAC Alcohol and Drug Awareness Program and referrals come from judges and justices of the peace.

The five-hour in-person class has been held three times at Navasota City Hall and three more classes are scheduled over the next nine months.

Gruner said, “At class starting time, entry doors are locked and no one is admitted late. It’s intense, gripping and interesting, reviewing choices drivers make every time they get behind the wheel. Including compelling videos about seat belt use, impaired from texting, alcohol and drugs, to drowsiness, the number of passengers in the car and their behavior.”

She continued, “It’s like ‘Scared Straight’ for drivers and is an effective tool. Three defendants have come back to my Court on their own just to thank me for making them attend RED.”

Justice and mercy

Reiterating the message of the Municipal Court Week proclamation, Gruner said, “Municipal Court is the face of Navasota to many. It is important to treat every defendant with courtesy and respect. I am grateful to the Navasota City Council for believing in me and trusting me. This work is meaningful and puts me in a position to help the people of Navasota. It’s about justice and mercy.”