Speed trap or local control? Some area mayor’s courts among busiest in Ohio

Four mayor’s courts in Dayton region are in top 10 in caseloads statewide

When voters decide whether to disband of the village of Harveysburg in the November election, they will also determine the fate of one of the busiest mayor’s courts, per capita, in Ohio

Mayor’s courts are a somewhat unique institution — only Ohio and Louisiana have them — and controversial. Critics say they are money grabs and speed traps, and give mayors of small villages too much power, including the ability to jail people and levy fines, after only two days of training.

“It’s an outdated institution that is ripe for mismanagement.” said Collin Marozzi, deputy policy director for ACLU Ohio

Harveysburg and other local officials say they exemplify local control. They say the courts are professionally run and exist to give villages the ability to maintain law and order with a personal touch. They note many mayor’s courts — including Harveysburg — are presided over by magistrates who are experienced, licensed attorneys.

“My role is not revenue generation,” said Brandin Marlow, magistrate of the North Hampton Mayor’s Court, which is the busiest in this region per-capita and third busiest in Ohio. “My role is problem solving so we’re more safe out there. One of the reasons to have judicial officers is because the law allows discretion and the communities that employ us expect us to use that discretion. The court system needs a personal touch.”

Of 268 mayor’s courts in Ohio, 22 are in this region. This includes four in the top 10 in the state in caseloads per 100 residents: North Hampton, Tremont City, Donnelsville and Harveysburg (which ranks seventh).

These four villages have a combined population of 1,618 residents, and handled 2,753 cases in 2022, according to statistics from the Ohio Supreme Court.

How mayor’s courts work

Mayor’s courts adjudicate misdemeanor traffic and criminal cases that are in violation of state code or village ordinances.

Ohio law allows mayors to exercise this power if they meet the initial training of six hours in general training and six hours of training to handle first time operating under the influence cases shortly after taking office. In addition, mayors must complete continuing education requirements of three hours each in both categories.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

The Supreme Court of Ohio sets the rules and procedures but does not regulate mayor’s courts as they do courts of record. The court keeps caseload statistics and other records, which are supposed to be filed quarterly, according to Lisa Colbert, a supreme court spokeswoman.

Mayors have the power to jail defendants as well as levy fines and court costs. Because defendants are cited under the local municipality’s ordinance, most of the fine and court costs stay with municipality, with much of it going to the general operating fund.

The mayor’s courts are not trial courts and do not conduct jury trials. Nor do they provide other court services such as foreign language interpreters. While defendants have their constitutional rights, they can have their case transferred to a local municipal or county court where jury trials can be held. Or if a defendant wishes to appeal a decision from mayor’s court, they can appeal it to the municipal or county court.

There are limitations on mayor’s courts in that charges such as domestic violence, violation of a protection order or a second offense operating a vehicle under the influence have to be transferred to the local municipal or county court.

Mayor’s courts can also be eliminated if a municipality votes to surrender its corporate powers as was the case in Amelia in Clermont County in 2019. The same could happen to Harveysburg Mayor’s Court if voters approve the same ballot question in the Nov. 7 general election. Tickets or cases pending in a mayor’s court would be transferred to a municipal or county court should the municipality be dissolved, according to the Supreme Court.

Mayor’s court concerns

Opponents of mayor’s courts say the training is too thin for mayors. They believe the courts would be better suited in having licensed attorneys preside over cases who have better knowledge of evidentiary issues. In addition, they say it encourages the creation of traffic traps to issue tickets to generate revenue in order to balance the municipality’s budget.

Marozzi, with the ACLU, said mayor’s courts are “not appropriate and are not fair arbiters of justice.” He said the ACLU Ohio is opposed to mayor’s courts.

“They are not courts of record because there are no requirements to keep audio or video recordings of their proceedings,” he said.

Marozzi said there are potential conflicts of interest because a mayor oversees the police department and the municipality’s budget.

“Overbearing and strict law enforcement can solve budget problems without raising taxes,” Marozzi said.

Marozzi said some of the mayor’s court abuses are in the inner-ring suburbs of large metropolitan counties where they take advantage of short sections of major highways, such as interstates, with sudden changes in speed limits and many citations are issued to non-residents and sometimes can be racially skewed as found in a 2019 study conducted by ACLU Ohio.

He also argued that those who say mayor’s courts are “convenient” forget that justice is supposed to blind and questions what kind of due process and fairness is adhered to.

Tom Hagel, a professor emeritus at the University of Dayton School of Law, said communities that continue to operate a mayor’s court do so as a matter of local control and the ability to generate revenue. He also believes that the training is “too thin.”

Hagel has served as an acting judge of Dayton Municipal Court for the past 34 years. He said a municipal or county court are more professional and are better trained, both of which can be costly to a small municipality. Hagel said going to a municipal or county court gives a defendant the full opportunity to exercise their full rights.

“I think if you are required to go before someone, they should have a law degree,” Hagel said. “There are evidentiary issues that are so complex that someone without law training can’t resolve them.”

Villages can choose to have a magistrate oversee the court instead of the elected mayor. Hagel said mayor’s court magistrates are required to be licensed attorneys with at least three years experience.

‘It’s worked well here’

Carlisle Mayor Randy Winkler said having a mayor’s court is a service for the community to get issues resolved locally without having to go to Franklin Municipal Court for traffic and misdemeanor cases. Winkler said the city uses a magistrate to hear these cases.

While the topic has come up in the past, Winkler said there are no discussions to change the current structure.

City Manager Chris Lohr said the goal is to break even. In 2022, Carlisle Mayor’s Court generated $40,275 in revenues and $57,244 in expenses, requiring an additional appropriation of $16,969 from the general fund to make up the difference.

Springboro has the largest population in the Dayton region that operates a mayor’s court. City Manager Chris Pozzuto said their mayor’s court has been positive for the city also adding that the goal is to break even. He said the city uses an appointed magistrate to hear cases that also include zoning matters.

“It’s worked well here,” he said.

As of Oct. 5, Pozzuto said mayor’s court revenue for 2023 was $132,632 and expenses were $163,177.

“(We) definitely don’t use it for revenue generation like many think,” he said.

Harveysburg’s ticket revenue fluctuates each year, according to officials. Mary Wilkie, the village’s fiscal officer, said at a council meeting Monday that revenue from tickets were way down. She said about $105,000 was generated last year and so far this year, it’s about $53,000.

She said this is largely because they have fewer officers writing tickets after one left for another job.

Mayor: ‘I enjoy helping people’

Moraine Mayor Teri Murphy has been the city’s mayor for more than a year and said having the mayor’s court is convenient for residents and is typically faster. Unlike other communities that use magistrates, Moraine’s mayor has always heard cases.

“I enjoy helping people,” she said. “We give them time to get their licenses and tell them what to do and who to contact. There are some that won’t do that for people.”

Murphy presides over video arraignments from the Montgomery County Jail and decides if someone can be released on bond. She said they try to accommodate people, work with people and be polite. Court costs are also lower than other Montgomery County communities, $69 compared to $165-$170 elsewhere.

Kent Depoorter, Moraine’s prosecutor and assistant law director, prosecutes the cases where defendants are required to appear or opted not to pay guilty waiver bond prior to their court date. Depoorter has served as prosecutor for six mayors and is also the magistrate of Springboro Mayor’s Court. He said mayor’s courts are more convenient that other courts.

During a recent session of mayor’s court, Depoorter would read the offenses of each defendant and recommend a fine to Murphy who would agree or disagree. After making a recommendation, Depoorter would ask, “are you OK with that mayor?”

Murphy takes the time to listen to the circumstances of why people were before her. In some cases, she reduced the fine or dismissed an offense with court costs after a defendant obtained a valid driver license. Other cases she went with the prosecutor’s recommendation.

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