Judge Merryman speaks to city court cases

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   When cited for a moving violation, most motorists acknowledge their error and pay their ticket while others want their day in court -- literally.
   Elizabethton City Court Judge Lewis Merryman hears cases of parking and moving violations as well as building code enforcement. Now, sources tell the Star that the dismissal rate of citations by Merryman has vexed some Elizabethton police officers who feel their work enforcing the city's traffic codes is going for naught.
   Speaking with the Star this week, Merryman said -- as was often the case in criminal-related cases -- the intricacies of administering the law did not guarantee a finding of guilt in each case that appeared in court.
   "The city attorney has the sole authority to prosecute a case, like the district attorney," said Merryman, who was elected as city judge in 1981. "The burden of proof is on the city. I cannot form a prosecutorial opinion of the case or I cease to be a judge."
   Citations issued range from illegal parking to moving violations. The number of citations issued varies from month to month.
   "A lot of people who get a ticket feel that they are guilty and go ahead and pay it," said Merryman. "Most people who come to court don't feel like they are guilty, and they want to be heard."
   A random survey of the city court dockets during 2002 and 2003 found an overwhelming majority of motorists paid their fines without coming to court.
   The survey also revealed a high number of cases dismissed by Merryman. Of those dismissals, several included stipulations such as orders that damages to a vehicle incurred by a defendant be paid to requests for dismissal by police officers.
   * April 2002: Over 250 tickets issued by city police officers were paid by motorists before coming to court. Of 39 defendants who appeared in city court, 31 violations were dismissed, six defendants did not appear and two were found guilty and ordered to pay their fines and court costs.
   * Seven court dates in July 2002: 189 tickets were paid and 27 persons who appeared in city court had tickets dismissed. According to the court docket of the court dates, four tickets were dismissed at the behest of either a police officer or the city attorney who serves in a prosecutorial role in city court. Four other tickets issued for following too close with contact were dismissed with the stipulation that damages were to be paid by the defendant.
   * October 2002: Approximately 36 persons came before Merryman in city court. Merryman dismissed eight tickets on request from police officers or the city attorney, according to the city court docket. Fourteen citations, primarily charged with following too close with contact were dismissed. Merryman cited 11 dismissals as a result of defendants complying with the offenses they were charged with. The docket record showed three defendants were found guilty of their charges and ordered to pay their fines.
   * January 2003: 46 citations were paid by defendants. Of approximately 38 defendants appearing in city court, 32 citations were dismissed. Of those dismissals, 13 citations were dismissed on the request of police officers while 9 were dismissed under the damages paid agreement, according to the docket. Three tickets were dismissed by Merryman who cited the absence of the officer who wrote the ticket in the courtroom. Five defendants who challenged their tickets were found guilty of their violations and ordered to pay fines and court costs within 30 days of their court appearance.
   While declining to comment on any specific case, Merryman said it was challenging for police officers and citizens to understand how the law defined and specified the rules of evidence in any court case.
   "Once, when you signed a ticket, it was considered an admission of guilt," Merryman said. "Evidence is hard to understand. Evidence -- to be admissible -- has to be subject to cross-examination, but there are some exceptions."
   Merryman also bristled at the notion that the city court should function as a revenue engine for the city.
   "The court system is not a system to raise revenue," he said. "A court is for law enforcement -- it can't be used to raise money for the operation of a city."
   Merryman also said that despite popular belief, the U.S. and state constitutions prohibit a fine of over $50 against any citizen who does not have the benefit of a jury trial.
   Court costs and litigation fees are tacked on to that fine, which frequently pushes the punitive payout by citizens to over $100. The litigation fees are mandated by state government for assessment over and above the $50 fine.
   An elected official, Merryman was reelected to his 5th term of office in 2001. Of his job performance, the Judge said despite what public opinion might believe, he sought to weigh each case and heard its merits without prejudice.
   "If people want to be heard I listen to them," he said. "I try to be fair and I think I have a reputation for being fair."