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(MIAMI, OK.) A session of the City of Miami’s Municipal Court with Judge Chuck Chesnut is a lesson in common sense and fair, realistic and compassionate justice.
The Municipal Court staff consists of Judge Chesnut, Prosecuting Attorney Ben Loring, Court Administrator Carrie Taylor, Deputy Court Clerk Krista Duhon and Miami Police Officers Jason Arnold and Sean McDonald serving as bailiffs.
Each Tuesday an average of 25 cases are heard in Municipal Court. Overall, a municipal court is a court for smaller scale crimes or misdemeanors and issues within the city’s jurisdiction. The judge hears matters involving violations of city ordinance, speeding and traffic violations, misdemeanor drug charges and code enforcement ordinance violations such as properties that are littered, overgrown in weeds or vegetation, or homes and properties in great disrepair. Several steps are taken by Code Enforcement before a complaint becomes a legal matter. All are issues important to the health, safety, and overall well-being of the community.
“We mostly deal with traffic, public intox, theft and shoplifting and drug possession cases,” Taylor said.
“When someone has been drinking or taking drugs, it’s not surprising people don’t always make the best decisions,” Judge Chesnut said.
Once issued a ticket or citation, the offender is given a notice to appear and a court date. With most charges the offenders have the option of avoiding a court appearance by simply paying the fine and costs at the City of Miami’s Utility Billing office with cashier’s check, money order or cash or by phone with a debit or credit card. If the offender decides to appear in court or is charged with specific charges that require a court appearance such as Driving with an Open Container, or Reckless Driving they must report at the designated date at the Municipal Court at Miami’s City Hall. Juveniles are required to appear with a parent or guardian.
At that initial appearance in court, the offender is given a copy of the complaint and can enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. “The vast majority of the time they plead guilty or no contest,” Taylor said.
During court Judge Chesnut listens, asks questions, consults Loring for clarification of legal matters, and depends on Taylor to document and file all necessary paperwork, while bailiffs maintain order in the courtroom and civility should the need arise.
Judge Chesnut uses humor during court and shares relatable stories with those appearing in court. During the last session he asked the courtroom full of offenders if they were glad to be there. They responded “no” of course, and one person asked if anyone ever answered yes, which brought laughter to the room as the Judge admitted that had never happened.
Judge Chesnut then hands down the consequences of the violation or misdemeanor, usually assessing the offender a fine and court costs. Those fines are defined by the Miami City Council by violation. (A list of violation fine fees is available on City of Miami website www.miamiokla.net.) For example, disobeying a traffic control device or stop sign is a fine of $100 and $60 in court costs, shoplifting is a $500 fine and $60 court cost. Once assessed a fine, Judge Chesnut asks the litigant if they can pay in full or prefer to set up a payment plan.
“I am sensitive to the reality of life, I’m okay with payments,” Judge Chesnut said.
In cases concerning code violations and other charges the Judge may ask the offender to return in a week to prove they have rectified the issue such as mowing, or cleaning trash from the property.
If the offender pleads not guilty the case is set on the disposition docket for discussion with the City’s prosecutor and if no disposition is reached is then set for a bench trial, and they can plead their case in a bench trail before the Judge.
If offenders do not appear as ordered, a bench warrant is issued for their arrest.
“Our goal is to hopefully make a change,” Taylor said,” We always hope it does, but fines don’t phase some offenders, and we do see repetitive offenders.”
Last year the City of Miami’s Municipal Court collected $109,402 from fines and court costs, but much of the assessed fines and costs goes unpaid. The fines and costs collected goes to the City of Miami’s General Fund except for fees earmarked by the state for fund specific use. The Sheriff’s Jail fees goes toward helping fund jail expenses and the Juvenile Alcohol fee collected in alcohol related charges goes for juvenile education and prevention in youth access of alcohol.
“Including warrants, collections, and outstanding fines and costs the monthly average outstanding to the City of Miami averages $750,000,” Taylor said.
In 2021 there were 544 cases filed. This year will far exceed that number with 807 cases filed so far in 2022.Taylor explained the 2021 number was much lower because the Ottawa County Jail was closed for repair after a fire. The limited jail space hinders the options and ability of the court to hand down more effective consequences. For every day in jail, offenders receive $25 off their fines until the total is paid.
“With limited space in the jail, we had less options,” Taylor said of the lower than usual case numbers in recent years, “Also there’s been a huge change in the number of cases we handle after the new drug laws took effect, and we’re getting cases that used to go to District Court. This makes a big difference, because in this court the only real repercussions available are jail time or suspending their driver’s license.”
The mission of the Municipal Court, located at Miami City Hall at 129 5th Avenue NW in Miami, is to administer and render equal justice to those accused of violating the laws and ordinances of the community. Miami’s Municipal Court staff can be reached at 918-542-6685.