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City judge removes barriers to resolve cases at Denton Municipal Court

Municipal Court Judge Robin Ramsay is making it easier to resolve traffic tickets and other low-level misdemeanors in Denton. 

As of Aug. 1, Ramsay has implemented policies that allow anyone who missed a court date for a class C misdemeanor to work out a form of payment at any time during working hours. Even people who have an outstanding arrest warrant for a fine-only offense can submit a written request to the court — either by mail or in person — that shows they want to resolve their case.

Once the court receives the written request, any arrest warrants will be dismissed or suspended. And the defendant can schedule another court date to work out a payment plan, community service or other resolution with the judge.

"This does not mean you can't get arrested on a warrant — you can." Ramsay said. "These are only the people who try to come in and take care of it. But it is a polar shift in mentality for courts to suddenly go, 'So you're telling me that someone can miss their court date and still come in here and get another chance?'"

Ramsay's court only handles class C misdemeanor offenses, which include traffic violations, public intoxication and thefts involving low dollar amounts. Previously, people who missed a court date for such crimes became eligible for an arrest warrant, and the existing fines for the citation automatically increased. 

On top of that, if the defendant wanted to resolve a case after missing the court date, the person most likely had to pay an additional fee to speak to a judge.

The new policies follow a national and statewide trend to curb what critics have called debtors' prisons — in which defendants are jailed for not paying fine-only offenses. Ramsay believes it's a more realistic application of justice that drifts from the recent push for automation in courts nationwide. 

Denton Municipal Court Judge Robin Ramsay discusses a "safe harbor" program for indigent defendants in his office on Tuesday. The program, which he wants to implement by mid-July, would allow defendants with unpaid fines or missed court dates to resolve the issue without the threat of arrest.DRC
Denton Municipal Court Judge Robin Ramsay discusses a "safe harbor" program for indigent defendants in his office on Tuesday. The program, which he wants to implement by mid-July, would allow defendants with unpaid fines or missed court dates to resolve the issue without the threat of arrest.
DRC

"When you go paperless, you have to come up with protocol and rules that move cases along," he said. "So, as part of that, we begin to shift our mentality to, 'Well that's the rule, and if you don't fit in the rule, you're done. We can't process it.'" 

Ramsay said he doesn't want to completely rely on preset timelines and "status codes" that dictate when and how defendants resolve their case. While police officers honor arrest warrants on the street, he doesn't want to put up unnecessary barriers for those who want to pay their fine at the court, he said. 

Defendants can go to the court clerk's office at City Hall East, 601 E. Hickory St., and discuss options with the clerk. They can set a new date or pay all fines and fees at the clerk's window, if they have the money to do so. 

However, if a defendant misses a court date, sets a new one and still doesn't show up, the initial warrant will be re-activated, Ramsay said. 

Senate Bill 1913, which passed during the recent legislative session, will help support Ramsay's new policies. The law gives judges more flexibility when setting fines for fine-only offenses, such as parking or speeding tickets. It also gives judges the authority to allow low-level offenders to resolve cases through payment plans or community service.

Aside from giving defendants the ability to set a new court date at any time, Ramsay is also allowing defendants to appear 15 minutes before any regularly scheduled docket at 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday to resolve a case. 

"This breaks all the rules," he said. 

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882.