- By Kate Cole
- Wednesday, November 16, 2011
- Hits: 811
Members of the Citizens Nuisance Task Force continued their 68th District Court watch program Nov. 3 by visiting Judge William H. Crawford and Judge Mary Catherine Dowd.
Crawford handles civil complaints with claims less than $25,000. Dowd deals with criminal law holding preliminary hearings to determine if there is probable cause for arrest warrants.
Crawford was in a business suit — not his chamber robes. Today, all claims were settled outside of court, but he still had a three-foot stack of folders on a nearby desk to go through.
Crawford says there have been changes in the types of cases he hears during the 14 years he has been on the bench. For example, when he started the cases often were about faulty products. But today the cases are mostly credit card companies trying to recapture unpaid balances.
"Today, many people have lost their jobs and defaulted on the credit cards," Crawford explained.
The judge cited a case where a credit card company sold personal debt, but failed to notify the debtor. Nine years later the firm that purchased the debt wants repayment with 13 percent interest. There were lots of gray areas in this particular case, but by listening to both sides of the argument a settlement was reached to the satisfaction of both parties.
Other cases that come before him are more convoluted. There are a rash of businesses that sell high-ticket items with high interest payments to people whose credit is not the best. Then if the purchaser loses his job he also loses his purchase. The business recaptures the asset then resells it again at a high-interest rate.
The judge recommended consumer education to stop these kinds of businesses that prey on people with risky credit. Everyone should understand the contract they sign and know what determines a high interest rate, he explained.
Crawford said the biggest problem facing the court system is money. He explained that there's not enough money to have a decent probation system or city jail. Defendants have to wait long periods of time to get their cases heard.
The judge was cautiously optimistic about the local Ceasefire Initiative that provides a second chance for nonviolent offenders and uses volunteers from the community and churches to work with young offenders.
"Criminal activity begins way before a person goes to jail," the judge said.
Crawford said the problem begins even before the children are in school.
"When a defendant comes into court and the judge has to tell him to take off his hat and pull up his pants, you know he's in trouble," Crawford said.
In Dowd's courtroom, a police officer is reading a list of charges that occurred from several traffic stops — each one resulting in the driver testing positive for alcohol or drug use while driving in the city. The list was long and the problem too familiar in the 68th District Court.
According to a state report earlier this year, it was recommended, based upon population, that Flint District Court cut one judgeship through attrition. The recommendation was based upon a study conducted every two years that took into consideration case loads and other factors.
But, according to Crawford and Dowd, the work doesn't stop at 5 p.m. In fact, it's not a nine-to-five job for any of the 68th district judges.
Dowd says she has to be available 24 hours a day because police will come to her house and ask her to sign search warrants late at night.
On the weekends Crawford will go to the county jail to read prisoners their rights and set bond.
"Christmas day is no exception," Crawford said. "Someone has to go to see that the rights of those arrested are protected. If the defendant cannot pay I will assign him an attorney."
In a criminal case in the 68th District Court, said Crawford, about 75 percent of the defendants are represented by a court appointed attorney. In a civil case a needy defendant does not get the right to court appointed representation. The civil defendant does have a right to hire an attorney and have his day in court.
The public is welcome to spend a day in court watching what's happening in the city. Court is held in the McCree Building, 630 S. Saginaw. Leave your cell phones at home and expect to go through a security scan.
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