Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Linndale sues, holds mayors court one last time
A guy walked into Linndale’s tiny courtroom today, threw himself onto a seat, and held his head in his hands. His hair was uncombed, his stubble days-long, as if he’d almost slept through his 3:30 pm court date.
He contemplated the crumpled court papers in his hand and shook his head. He may have been one of Linndale’s last defendants ever. But if he knew that, it wasn’t consoling him.
The Linndale mayor’s court held an unusual Tuesday session today, blitzing through two weeks’ worth of scofflaws while it still could. On Friday,* a new state law makes mayor’s courts illegal in towns with less than 201 people.
Linndale, official population 179, is fighting back. The microvillage and operator of I-71’s most famous speed trap is suing to try to stop the law. A hearing on the challenge is set for tomorrow afternoon in Columbus.
Meanwhile, mayor’s court magistrate George Sadd conducted court today as he always has, with a quirky cheerfulness that reflects the ambience of Northeast Ohio’s quirkiest town.
A defendant rose, holding his year-old daughter. Dressed in pink, she hung onto her father’s shoulder and his black coat’s furry hood.
“You wanna talk?” Sadd asked her. “Wanna be his lawyer? Did he say he was guilty?”
Actually, Dad pled not guilty. He was cited for speeding while driving a ’91 Nissan. He actually drives a ’95 Ford Escort. Sadd dismissed his case.
The last few defendants sagged in their seats, wearing glum, chastened, about-to-be-fined looks.
“You should be very happy today,” Sadd told them. “This is the last day of winter!”
Tomorrow, the first day of spring, is also D-Day for Linndale.* TV news vans will likely descend on the town’s eight streets, driving a careful 25 mph, waiting to see if the new law will actually end the village’s 46-year-old speed trap.
Sadd turned to Mike Toczek, the clerk of courts and the town’s top civilian employee. “Mike, don’t let anybody rile you tomorrow,” he counseled. “Just answer questions to the best of your ability.”
Soon, Sadd saw my notebook and realized the media onslaught had already begun. While he waited for one last defendant’s lawyer to arrive, he started chatting.
“This is a good court,” Sadd told me. “I’m very good with the plea bargains here, trying to help everybody out.”
Linndale issues traffic tickets at a fantastic rate: about 2,700 annually per 100 residents, by far the highest ratio in Ohio. And the rate might even be higher than reported.
My 2011 article, “Greetings From Linndale,” co-written with Mark DeMarino, found strange discrepancies in Linndale’s official 2010 census count of 179: a block that's not really in Linndale, a block where phantom residents supposedly moved into an industrial zone, and a block that officially doubled in population but didn't have nearly that many people a year later. We also found that police went door-to-door, encouraging people to fill out census forms, a practice the Census Bureau said was inappropriate and could intimidate people.
The new law’s sponsor, Sen. Tom Patton, has argued that Linndale issues tickets disproportionately to fund the town budget. Sadd disagrees.
“What does the number of people in the village have to do with enforcement of traffic laws?” he asked. “Trained police officers issue tickets on highways. The residents sit at home and watch TV.”
Sadd heard 40 defendants’ cases today; 93 more have a court date on March 27. Will the court be open then, despite the law?
“Yes,” Sadd insisted. He invited me to come back. “We’ll have tea and doughnuts for you.”
*Update, 3/20: A judge has denied Linndale's request for a preliminary injunction, so the law is set to go into effect on Friday.
(The Ohio Supreme Court ordered Linndale and other tiny mayor's courts to cease operation as of March 20, which is 90 days after the governor signed the bill. But the law actually takes effect on the 22nd, 90 full days after it was filed with the Secretary of State.)
Update, 3/27: Linndale has won a stay of the mayor's court law pending an appeal. The tiny towns' lawyers and the state attorney general's office will face off at the appeals court this summer.