City court serves as a pressure relief valve for the judicial system, where cases can be disposed of in a bench trial — the judge sitting without a jury — in an informal and hasty way. City court arises from the common law office of justice of the peace, men who dispensed summary justice under local or town law.
By David Tulis / Noogaradio 1240 AM 101.1 FM
They are, in a way, “people’s courts,” and often the only place Chattanoogans encounter the legal system.
One city court judge in Hamilton County is Marty Lasley. Having practiced law in Chattanooga for 25 years, Mr. Lasley was elected as a two-year replacement judge in Soddy-Daisy in August. When the term is over he may run for an eight-year term. In an interview, Mr. Lasley tackles several questions that have had me tied in knots. These questions pertain to the means whereby you, the defendant, can maintain your rights.
City court and general sessions courts are the same. The judges are elected. But in neither do you get a jury trial. Your right to a jury in a criminal matter and in disputes over $50 is protected in the constitution. You have “an absolute right, an absolute right” to a jury trial, Mr. Lasley says.
“All you have to do is ask me, and say, ‘I want a jury trial.’ and the judge does not have discretion to weigh it, to decide whether that’s a good idea or a bad idea, this case is so small, that’s wasting the everybody’s [time]. There’s no discretion. If you ask for a jury trial, I sign a line and you go straight up to criminal circuit court, and they have the apparatus to give you a jury trial.”
The expeditious movement of cases tells of the city court’s humble origin. “I think the original justice of the peace concept, Richard the Lionhearted back in 1100s in England, appointed knights to go into unruly areas and, quote, keep the peace, the king’s peace. I believe the title justice of the peace came around in the 1300s in a British law that established justices of the peace,” a common law office, the lowest possible legal office in the land. “That’s what our municipal courts are.”
A charge on any offense that can deprive you of liberty opens the way for you to demand a jury trial, Mr. Lasley says. If you are charged for a state crime that is a misdemeanor, his court can hear it and he can render a verdict. City court in Soddy-Daisy handles no civil disputes.
I ask about you, my reader, and your signing the citation handed you roadside by a police officer: Does signing it damage your rights or any challenge you might make to subject matter jurisdiction? The answer is no. “All your saying is, I acknowledge that I have received this citation to court set for such and such time, date and place.” If you don’t sign the citation to affirm you have gotten it, “they have to actually take you in and book you,” Mr. Lasley says. “Because that is the only way they are going to have a record that you have been notified of your court date.” Signing the citation doesn’t imply that you are accepting jurisdiction of the city or sessions court. If you don’t show up, you are “on the hook for failure to appear,” Mr. Lasley says. That would be two charges against you.
Don’t like verdict? Petition for ‘trial de novo’ in circuit court
Part of the inferiority of city and sessions courts is that they are not courts of record. A negative verdict can be appealed to circuit court, with a trial de novo, or a new trial. “That just means it’s brand new, start over. nobody cares how the court below rules, that is me. I call it a complete do-over.*** the judge above starts over — ‘blank slate.’ Trial de novo.”
City court is not a court of record, but if it happens a court reporter is at hand and someone has paid her to transcribe your case, that transcript can be used in an appeal for new trial in circuit court. You are under oath in testifying in city court, and could be entered into evidence later, Mr. Lasley says.
He cannot think of an instance when the state has appealed a case it has lost in traffic court. In moving violation cases, if you win, the state won’t appeal, as there are no prosecuting attorneys. “In those cases there is no prosecuting attorney in Soddy-Daisy, and typically *** there are no prosecuting attorneys in those [Chattanooga] cases. So, essentially, if you’re the motorist and you are cited and the judge rules in your favor, I think that’s 100 percent that the case is over. There’s just no one on the other side to care.”
My own thought about having a case heard in city court or sessions court is this. “Waive the court” and ask for a jury trial if there is probable cause. That will force your accuser, the state’s agent, to petition the grand jury for an indictment. If the accusations are given a true bill, you will rightly demand a trial before a jury of peers. Chances are that if the conflict is minor, you will hear nothing more of the citation or the case against you.
My obtuse question: Jail? In a contract dispute?
I bring up the question about the use of the road and the driver’s license. The driver’s license is in equity, which means it is part of the world of contracts. Prosecutions against users of the roads who don’t have licenses, or who are driving on revoked or expired licenses, are in equity — again, in the law of contracts. How is it possible for a man to be ARRESTED and put into a JAIL CELL for a night — or two nights if I can’t make bond — in a contract dispute that opens the citizen to criminal charges?
Mr. Lasley points out that driving a motor vehicle ‡ is a privilege, it is not a constitutional right. “When you get your license, part of what the contract is you are agreeing to abide by all [the terms] — because the supreme court has said driving a vehicle is not a constitutional right. It’s a privilege. And so, when you get your license, you are granted certain privileges to drive an automobile on the streets of the public roadways. And in exchange you’ve agreed to abide by a pretty big book worth of stuff. You may not know all of them, but you’ve agreed to abide by a big book of rules.”
I restate my question about being subject to arrest by the state in a contract dispute. Here’s a slab of our dialogue:
Marty Lasley. You’re not jailed for doing 57 in a 55. You’re not jailed; you’re cited to court. You are jailed if you violated the criminal law, which means, you were driving, you don’t have a license on you, but not only do you not have one on you, you either have never had one or it has been revoked. At that point you are violating the criminal code of the state of Tennessee and you’ve now moved out of the contractual arrangement you had, and you are now in the criminal section. (Italics are mine)
David. But that prosecution is seeking to punish a contract dispute at equity? It seems rather odd to me.
Marty Lasley. Yes, because you cannot practice medicine without a license. Do agree with that?
David. No, but go ahead.
Marty Lasley. If your home is raided one day, and you are doing a surgical procedure on a human, you are in violation of the law, of the criminal law. So really, less extreme, but that is what’s occurring when you are violating the criminal law as it relates to various driving type offense. You’re just violating a contract if you are driving too fast, your headlights are out, your windows are tinted too much, there’s something wrong with your vehicle, or you’re violating — you’re in the wrong lane. All that stuff you’re given a citation for. It’s only a few matters that cross over the contractual side and are actually then codified as a crime, a criminal violation. And those are things which you may have to post bond, you could possibly be taken to jail until you do post bond. For example DUI. If you have a license, you have a contract to drive on the streets; and no one has a right to drive at point 0.20 alcohol content, and if you’re pulled over and found to be in violation of that, that’s a criminal violation, not a rules of the road violation — if that makes any sense.” (Italics added)
Why my cranky ‘equity jurisdiction’ question is about liberty
The question I am struggling to frame is over the distinction between courts of law and courts of equity. A law court handles criminal cases for things such as rape, murder, fraud, inflation or DUI. An equity court, as I indicate, deals with disputes. We live today under a legal realm that has been established not by honest and limited constitutional government, but commercial government and its surveillance apparatus and its effort to forestall and prevent evil apart from the Christian gospel (crime prevention via regulation). The legal framework is positivist law; by that I mean express lawmaking of the kind that fills volume after volume and purports to cover every contingency.
In dissenter prosecutions in the 1960s through 1980s, people were hauled into court and insisted on their constitutional rights only to be told, “The constitution doesn’t apply here.” How could this have been? The courts in which nonfilers, tax protesters and others were being tried were equity courts. “Equity courts deal with the law of contracts, not the common law or the constitution,” notes a character in a novel, Heiland by Franklin Sanders, set in a post-collapse Tennessee where the cities are controlled by totalitarian dullards — er, the federal government — and the countryside is in the hands of free men. Claude Heiland goes on to describe how a dispute over a contract over the sale of two bushels of wheat is handled in equity court. “[T]he judge will decide what rights we each have according to what we voluntarily agreed in the contract.”
Speaking of the American dissenters, Heiland goes on to explain,
“[T]hat was just the trick that caught them. They had volunteered, they had signed! They had proven themselves subject to the equity jurisdiction by volunteering for it themselves, and then arguing to the charges when hauled into court. Did they voluntarily sign up for social security numbers? Sure they did, and that was a contract with the government. *** Did they voluntarily sign up for and request driver’s license? Sure they did. By doing that, they volunteered into equity jurisdiction. In effect they went to the state and said, ‘I am a driver.’ I need your permission to go from place to place in a vehicle.
“Now if you had asked them if they had waived all their constitutional rights to freedom of travel, to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and had voluntarily subjected themselves to all that petty blue light tyranny, they would have answered, ‘Are you crazy?’ But that’s exactly what they had done. The state didn’t force them to request a driver’s license: they did it voluntarily. What was the state supposed to do when they came wandering in and asked for permission to go from place to place? Well, the state had to assume that they knew what they were doing and they were persons who needed that permission.”
Heiland cites Thomas Jefferson as saying that if ever the distinction between equity courts and law courts is destroyed, freedom is destroyed, as well.
Sources: Franklin Sanders, Heiland (Hamilton, Bermuda: Machrihanish Ltd., 1986), 276 pp. See pp. 147-165. I have read this Tennessee novel in readalouds with two of my sons. Mr. Sanders’ essays often appear on our website.
‡ Activists who insist they have a right to travel on the public road insist that this vernacular is correct. Driving a motor vehicle is distinct legally from traveling on the roads in a private automobile. They insist they are traveling in automobiles and are not in commerce. Not being in commerce, they defy suggestions they should ask permission via licensure. At the link just below is a story with about 20 Nooganomics.com links to analyses about the right of travel vs. the privilege of operating a motor vehicle and being involved in transportation.