A day in the life of Demopolis Municipal Court

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 1, 2004

At precisely 4 o’clock Woody Dinning Jr. strides purposefully to the waiting chair on the raised platform and takes a seat.

“Remove your hats,” he tells the 50 or so people assembled before him. “And please take any rags off your head.”

Contrary to countless late-night movie scenarios, no one asks those gathered to please rise — although one or two in the audience start half way to their feet, think better of it and quickly sit back down.

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Demopolis Municipal Court is now in session.

Dinning has held the position of municipal court judge for more than 10 years. Each Monday at 4 p.m. he stands in judgment of his fellow man. Here is where the sins of the wife beaters, the shoplifters, the bad check writers are brought to the light for all to see and judgment rendered.

Some have obviously come straight from work for their day in court and wear uniforms with their first names stitched above their pockets. Others wear blue jeans and hunting caps. Still others wear baggy sweat pants, T-shirts and flip-flops.

Only Dinning and City Attorney Rick Manley and a couple of lawyers waiting to defend their clients wear coat and tie.

The air of informality is reinforced by the courtroom itself. The room is paneled in plain plywood. A battered folding table serves both Manley, who acts as prosecutor, and any defense attorneys. On either side of the table sit two sofas, both covered in a faux leather material.

From time to time Demopolis police officers waiting to testify take refuge on one or the other of the sofas.

Court is held each Monday. The first three Mondays of each month are reserved for pleadings. Those who wish to plead guilty may pay their fine and court costs at that time. The fourth Monday is for those who wish to contest any charges against them. Few municipal court defendants exercise their right to be represented by an attorney.

Municipal court handles traffic offenses and misdemeanors that take place within the police jurisdiction. Those that take place outside the police jurisdiction are handled in district court. Felonies are heard in circuit court.

Misdemeanors include assault, harassment, domestic violence, shoplifting and bad check writing — or as Manley quips, “This is where we get all the ya-yas and the backyard squabbles.”

One of the first cases on today’s docket involves a charge of assault. Both the plaintiff and the defendant are women. The woman who filed the assault charge is seeking restitution for what she claims are more than $2,000 in medical bills.

After being sworn in the two women give their testimonies. The two had been standing in line to get something to eat at a local store when one of them allegedly broke line and cut in front of the other one. First words were exchanged and then blows. Both claim the other threw the first punch.

Dinning listens intently, chin resting in the palm of his hand. His fingers drum the table in front of him.

One of the women has subpoenaed a witness, a man. He testifies that on the day in question he had just ordered his food when the fight between the two women broke out. “I was just trying to get me some chicken on a stick,” he says.

Nervous at first, the man gradually warms to the fact that he has an audience. Asked if he saw who threw the first punch, he replies, “I wasn’t around by then, ’cause I thought they were fixing to sure enough get down and I didn’t want them getting my chicken on a stick.”

This last brings titters of laughter from those in the courtroom and a mild reproval from Dinning. “This isn’t American Idol,” he cautions the man. “I don’t want you trying out for anything.”

The testimony complete, Dinning sighs. From the testimony given it is almost impossible to determine what really transpired that day. “If you had both acted like responsible adults,” he scolds, “this whole thing could have been avoided.”

Then, in a Solomon-like ruling, he finds both women guilty of assault and orders each to pay a small fine and court costs.

By law municipal court judges may levy fines up to $500 and impose jail sentences of up to six months. In DUI cases the fines can range upwards of $2,000 for a third offense.

“I don’t view my role as dispensing punishment,” Dinning explains. “It’s more a case of, how can I impose a sentence that will prevent the undesirable behavior in the future? Sometimes that means more than just imposing a fine or jail time. Sometimes it calls for a little creativity.

“But at the same time if there’s been a crime somebody’s got to be the judge.”

The next case involves a teen-ager who has been charged with reckless driving. He is one of the few who is represented by a lawyer. His father is also here, and takes a seat on one of the sofas when his son’s case is called.

The father and son do not speak.

Manley calls the arresting officer to the stand. The officer testifies that he witnessed the young man leaving a parking lot so fast that his tires were “slinging gravel everywhere.”

The youth, in his turn, sullenly denies doing anything wrong. His father also testifies. As evidence, he produces two Polaroid photographs that purport to show the parking lot in question. It is paved.

Dinning asks to see the photographs, then hands them back. Photos notwithstanding, he sides with the officer’s version of events and finds the youth guilty of the lesser charge of speeding.

“In criminal cases you’re held to a stricter standard than in civil cases,” Dinning says. “I have to find someone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to a moral certainty. It’s not like it’s a case of 49 percent to 51 percent. I’ve got to be 99 percent sure before I convict someone.”

As is not uncommon, the docket this day includes several domestic violence cases. As is also not uncommon, the plaintiffs in two of the cases — both women — have decided not to pursue charges.

“That happens in about 50 percent of the cases,” Dinning says. “By the time they get to court, the argument’s over. They’ve had a chance to cool off. They just want this thing over with.”

Dinning usually requires first offenders to complete the domestic violence intervention program offered by the West Alabama Mental Health Center. Second offenders go to jail.

Says Manley, “Woody bends over backwards to give most people the benefit of the doubt. But after they’ve had two or three bites out of the apple … it’s time to lower the boom.”

One of the final cases is a local doctor who has been charged with running a stop sign. Like most of the others the doctor has chosen to represent himself. He is here, he says, “out of principle.”

He says he has an unblemished driving record and produces a handful of auto insurance records he has photocopied to show that he receives a safe-driver discount each year.

In rebuttal, Manley gently points out that that hardly proves he didn’t run the stop sign.

Dinning cuts him off. “I’ve had something happen to me tonight that’s never happened before,” he marvels. “In all the years I’ve been a municipal judge, I’ve never had a doctor come before me for a traffic ticket. You have spent five or six hours of your time to fight this charge. At what doctors make, I would estimate you’ve invested at least $1,000 in this case.”

Dinning pauses to let that sink in before continuing.

“I think you’re guilty,” he says at last. “But you’ve impressed me so much tonight that I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and find you not guilty — just don’t come back here on your good record again.”