City’s Municipal Court provides options for defendants
For many motorists, there’s an unfortunate familiarity seeing the lights of a police car in their rear-view mirror. Anxiety sets in, and the internal conversation begins:
“I wasn’t speeding!” “The light was yellow, right?” “Where’s my insurance card?!?”
Answers to those questions aside, motorists pulled over for alleged Class C misdemeanor traffic violations in The Colony eventually end up pulling in at The Colony Municipal Court, 5151 North Colony Blvd., where such offenses are processed.
Municipal Court Judge Kimberly Lafferty presides over the court. In addition to her judicial responsibilities, Judge Lafferty is also a practicing attorney with Lafferty Law Firm, PLLC. The Municipal Court Judge is an independent appointment by the City Council and not a member of the city administration. Lafferty has held the post for five years.
Court Administrator Patti Ristagno, a 29-year veteran of the department, said traffic violations represent about 85 percent of the court’s average caseload. Class C misdemeanors in violation of state law, such as public intoxication, theft less than $50, assault by contact, and disorderly conduct, comprise about 10 percent of the cases. The remaining 5 percent are city ordinance violations.
The Municipal Court is also responsible for processing and issuing arrest warrants stemming from criminal offenses occurring in The Colony. Two officers from The Colony Police Department are assigned to the court as both warrant officers and bailiffs. The judge is also on call 24/7 to sign warrants or conduct arraignments at The Colony Jail.
Regardless of the offense, Judge Lafferty said the primary purpose of the court is to provide the accused an opportunity to share their side of the story.
“One of the purposes is to ensure those accused of a traffic violation or any other offense have their day in court. They have the right to contest the charges,” Lafferty said. “They may be proven correct, but if not then the court provides a mechanism for them to reflect about the actions they have taken.”
The court is in session twice a month for pretrials, bench trials, and the rare jury trial. When in session, defendants may meet with the prosecutor to resolve or dismiss their cases before trial, or go before the judge to contest the charges or share circumstances surrounding the offense in the hopes of lessening their sentence or fine.
Most cases, however, don’t make it to trial. Ristagno and her staff of four clerks process the bulk of the cases at the court’s customer service window during regular business hours 5 days a week.
“The courtroom belongs to the judge but I oversee the court itself, compiling monthly reports and managing the budget and staff,” Ristagno said. “When defendants show up with their tickets, my clerks provide them their options. We take payments. We set up extensions, deferred disposition, defensive driving, court dates … anything to take care of that ticket.”
Most of those options are only available when defendants choose to plead guilty or no contest. If they plead not guilty or refuse to enter a plea, then the court administrators schedule a court date for a jury or bench trial during one of the two days each month court is in session.
“We don’t have a lot of bench trials,” Ristagno said. “People will sometimes plead not guilty, then come in and talk to the prosecutor who may offer a deferral to resolve the case without going to trial. But to have an actual bench trial where an officer gives testimony happens maybe about twice a month; and even less often for jury trials.”
Ristagno said defendants should expect to spend about half a day at the court if they choose to have a trial. On pretrial days, about 150-200 cases are reviewed. Often times defendants move forward seeking a trial in the hopes they will have the ticket dismissed because the police officer who pulled them over won’t show up in court to testify.
“In some other cities, the officers may not appear but our officers are required to appear,” Ristagno said. “If they don’t, they may be reprimanded.”
Ristagno stressed that the court clerks cannot provide any legal advice. They can only provide options, of which there are many. The clerks are responsible for understanding all those options, including the fee schedule set by state law.
What many people may not know is that the city pays state taxes for each violation, the cost of which is passed on to the violator. At the end of each quarter, Ristagno compiles a report and submits state taxes to the Texas Comptroller. In some cases, like most moving violations, the state gets almost half of the fine. Moving violations get the most state taxes, she said. The fine for running a red light, for example, is $195. Of that, the state gets $84.
High-end fines include driving without proof of liability insurance ($350), parking in a handicapped zone ($500), driving with a suspended license ($500), and passing a school bus loading or unloading students ($610).
Ristagno said driving without proof of insurance is an all-too-common ticket and often easily avoided if motorists would simply make sure to have a copy of their insurance card in their vehicle or on their person at all times.
“A lot of people don’t carry their insurance card,” she said. “But I would encourage our residents to always carry proof of liability and make it easily accessible for the officer. So many people have insurance but don’t have proof with them so they get a ticket. Then they have to come up here, we have to make a copy, call the agent, and verify it before we can dismiss the ticket.”
Defendants also have a deferred option where they can get insurance and keep it current for six months, after which the ticket may be dismissed. Ristagno stressed that the Texas Department of Public Safety has a surcharge system, called the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP), that adds additional charges to maintaining one’s driver’s license. A conviction for driving without insurance is reported to the DPS, who charges the offender $250 per year for three years. Failure to pay the surcharges can result in a suspended driver’s license. Other DPR-related convictions include driving while intoxicated ($1,000/year for three years for first offense) and driving without a license ($100/year for three years).
“A conviction for driving without insurance stays on your DPS record forever,” Ristagno said.
For those who choose to ignore their ticket and not appear in court or pay their fines, the judge will issue a warrant for their arrest. Ristagno processes it, the judge signs it, and it is then entered into a regional warrant system. “No matter where you are in the DFW area, you can get arrested,” Ristagno said.
Through the years, more warrants are typically issued during difficult economic times.
“Seems like the last four or five years the economy has been bad, so we end up issuing a lot more warrants than we used to,” Ristagno said. “This last month (July) I issued almost 400. We do try to go as far as we can to help people. We give them extensions. We do things we don’t have to do, like courtesy calls, late notices, etc., letting people know the warrant is printed but the judge hasn’t signed it. We give them plenty of chances to get in here. Partial payments are an option. But once it goes to warrant, there’s also a late fee in addition to the fine, and a warrant fee of $50 per offense. The costs get higher and higher if you ignore it.”
The ultimate mission of the city’s judiciary branch is to embody the principles of fair and impartial justice administered with respect and equality to all. In carrying out that mission, Ristagno preaches customer service as a big priority for her clerks.
“That’s our first thing. I always tell the clerks, a lot of people just want to vent so listen to them and be understanding,” she said. “We don’t have to tolerate profanity or the like, but most of the people just want to tell their story and share their circumstances. We’re here to help them find a direction to take and provide guidance on how to keep a conviction off their record.”
The Colony Municipal Court only handles criminal cases. Civil cases within the jurisdiction are the responsibility of the Justice of the Peace Precinct 2 Court at The Colony Government Center on Main Street, presided by Judge James DePiazza.