January 21, 2012
For the vast majority of Boulder’s citizens, the only encounters they are likely to have with the criminal justice system occur in Municipal Court. Justice should be served every day to everyone who appears, without exception. In the words of Alexander Hamilton, “The ordinary administration of criminal and civil justice . . . contributes more than any other circumstance to impressing upon the minds of the people affection, esteem, and reverence towards the government.” The Federalist Papers (No. 17) (1787), at 120.
As a general rule, the offenses in Boulder’s municipal court are minor. Traffic offenses, barking dog cases, and the occasional “general offense (use of fighting words, brawling, open containers, etc.) predominate. Truly bad actors end up in county courts, where the system is better set up to deal with them. The real challenge in municipal court is to educate, not merely punish, those whose inadvertent mistakes have brought them to an arraignment session. Jail time is rarely, if ever, imposed.
The City Attorney’s office has the power to exercise prosecutorial discretion to more appropriately balance free speech rights against the public’s right to equal access to park and open space lands. Civil disobedience cuts both ways. Citizens and the government have their roles to play. If the problem is crowded dockets, waive jail time as a potential penalty, and the right to a jury trial goes away. Homelessness is a status, not a choice. It should not be made a “crime” by outlawing “camping,” under any particular guise.