Liberty Hill growth reflected in Municipal Court
By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
The casework for the November session of municipal court in Liberty Hill made a paper stack nearly five inches tall. As officials and administrators keep pace ahead of a docket that grows thicker by the month, changes in the municipal court have begun to take shape as yet another indicator of Liberty Hill’s rapid development.
“With more people comes more law enforcement,” says city prosecutor Erin Higginbotham. “And with more law enforcement comes more citations, and with more citations comes more municipal court.”
In September, the City Council voted to approve the employment of two additional patrol officers to join the current force of eight. In the same month the Council also voted to hire a new code enforcement officer, who will write and issue notices for derelict cars, bandit signs, or other code violations on residential and commercial properties in the city.
Court Administrator Tracy Ventura says those increases will only build on an uptick she has noticed since last summer, when Police Chief Maverick Campbell arrived in town with a “pro-active approach.”
And more will come as the city grows in population, she says, or if it expands its limits westward toward the high school, as has sometimes been discussed in council meetings.
Currently the court is still for the foreseeable future “small-sized,” as Ventura says.
For now, she is the only full-time employee at the court. In the days leading up to the month’s session, held on the first Monday at 8:30 a.m., she personally calls every defendant to remind them of their scheduled appearance. It is a courtesy she takes on not because she has the time, she says, but because it is helpful to these people.
Ventura cut her teeth in Victoria, a much larger city that saw around 1,300 cases a month.
“I was really just thrown into the deep end,” she says, and as a result, she learned how to process cases efficiently.
When she arrived in Liberty Hill in 2015, she immediately began working to automate many of the court’s processes into an online format.
The change was a boon for commuters in town, she says, for whom “the last thing they want to do is show up in person.”
Ventura is one of the three faces most defendants will see when they arrive at Liberty Hill’s municipal court— “maybe the only court they will ever interact with,” as Higginbotham put it. The other two are Higginbotham, as the prosecutor, and the judge, Kevin Madison.
During session, Higginbotham meets with defendants in the back of the building, only occasionally poking her head into the main chamber, where Madison hails the defendants one by one from the lobby.
For the September session, one of the first defendants appeared to show cause for his lack of payment to the court in the amount of $217. The man explained he was recently shorted on a paycheck for some work he had done in the oil fields, but that his dispute was making its way through the Texas Workforce Commission.
Madison told the man to either pay the amount or do 11 hours community service by the end of the following week.
The next defendant was a high school student, accompanied by her mother, cited for speeding 68 mph in a 55 mph zone. Madison told the young woman, who only recently received her driver’s license, how to complete a Defensive Driving course and how to turn it in. “Good luck,” he called out as she left the room.
One of the last defendants toward the end of the session was a middle-aged woman charged with speeding and with having an expired registration. Though she had paid some of her charges, there were others still unpaid, and more yet, she had violated a promise to appear in court. It was her first ticket in 12 years.
After hearing the case’s details, Madison asked only one question to her— “Why?”
Though she works at Starbucks as a manager, and had been able to pay some of the fines, others had proven more difficult, she said— “money’s tight right now.” The same incident she was cited for also totaled her car, and for her two children, she said she received no child support from their father, who lives on a couch in Florida without a job.
Madison nodded, and gave her a deal. He wiped the charges for the failure to appear and the expired registration in exchange for her pleading guilty. Her $200 fine for the speeding was substituted with community service hours set at four hours every two weeks — “because of the kids,” Madison said. He wished her good luck as she left.
The session was over before noon.
Casework related to pre-trials and scheduling appearances, however, creates a need for labor that extends far beyond those hours, which keeps Ventura busy all month.
A demand for this clerical processing saw a dramatic increase Sept. 1, when a new law went into effect changing how court dates are scheduled. Now when a defendant misses a court appearance, the court must automatically schedule them for a new appearance, instead of waiting for them to reach out.
The new law, along with the law enforcement additions and the expected growth to come, factored into the court’s decision in September to ask the City Council for more funding tied to certain changes.
Among them, court officials and administrators wish to see the hours of the court expanded. Currently the preference of Madison is to extend the first Monday session to a full-day, but in the future, a second day could be required. Additionally, hiring a second certified clerk was requested.
The Council ultimately granted most of the requested budget, with the qualification that the court would only implement these beginning in January 2018.
Ventura says these changes should be sufficient for now to accommodate the “significant” increases in the case load seen in recent times, but more might be required in the future.
As they get bigger, she says, she might look toward having an automated service to “robocall” defendants about their payments and court dates. In that case, she would no longer call them personally.