What is a Justice of the Peace, anyway?
I am often asked what a Justice of the Peace (JP) actually does. I’m never sure where to begin because our jurisdiction and responsibilities are numerous and rather eclectic. I’ve decided to start by simply listing as many of our areas of responsibility as I can remember.
include both criminal and civil trials, bench and jury trials.
On the Criminal Side, JPs handle a wide variety of misdemeanor charges including:
Moving Traffic Violations;
Minors in Possession of alcohol or drug paraphernalia;
Commercial driver license (CDL) and commercial motor vehicle (CMV) infractions;
Parks & Wildlife offenses such as fishing, hunting or boating infractions; and
Non-penal code offenses.
Pre-judgment, these cases involve: pleas; determinations of indigence; warrants and failure to appear issues; dismissals; deferred disposition opportunities; and driver safety court. Post-judgment issues include: non-compliant defendants, capias pro-fines, bond forfeiture proceedings, and appeals.
On the Civil Side our jurisdiction includes:
Debt Claim cases (i.e. credit card or loan debt up to $10,000);
Small Claims disputes up to $10,000 in value;
Eviction and Landlord/Tennant issues (all eviction cases in Texas originate in JP Courts) including: (1) Repair and Remedy Claims; (2) Residential and Commercial Evictions; (3) Manufactured Home Evictions; (4) Writs of Reentry; (5) Writs of Restoration; and (6) Orders of Retrieval.
Any of the cases above may include pretrial motions and post judgment remedies in addition to the pleadings themselves. The pre and post-trial issues might include: (1) a hearing on whether to accept a Statement of Inability to Pay Court Costs in lieu of filing and other fees; (2) pretrial motions such as jurisdiction or venue questions; (3) pretrial writs (sequestration and attachment); (4) compliance with Service Members Civil Relief Act (to be sure no actions are taken against active duty military who may be deployed); (5) bankruptcy issues; (6) discovery requests; (7) motions for default judgment; (8) writs of garnishment; (9) writs of execution; and (10) turnover orders or receiverships.
The third type of hearing in Justice Courts is administrative hearings
that don’t seem to fall into either the criminal or civil category, including:
- Animal cruelty or Dangerous Dog hearings;
- Concealed carry permit denial/suspension;
- Driver license suspensions;
- Disposition of stolen property;
- Tow hearings;
- Septic system violations; and
- Environmental (public nuisance) hearings.
Juvenile Law Issues
The Justice Court hears both civil and criminal juvenile offenses.
Failure to Attend School is the new designation which replaced truancy after the last legislative session, and it is civil in nature. At this point I am handling primarily elementary school students from WISD, as well as all ages from other smaller districts and private schools in the area.
Getting to see the challenges of students and parents today has been very eye-opening. There are many elementary students who are dealing with very unstable home situations including parents in prison, homelessness, and parents with substance problems. It is gratifying when we can help students get help they need to do well in school. It is frustrating and heart-breaking when you see students whose parent may be substance-impaired and unable or unwilling to simply get their child to school. Many of the students we see have 30 or 40 absences by this time of year. State law requires that they be held back if they miss more than 10% of their class time without making it up. Some of the students probably need to be held back because they simply haven’t been in school enough to learn the material, but a remarkable number of them are still passing all their classes.
Waco has wonderful resources available to help families and students who need help with clothes, transportation, tutoring, counseling, or even housing. I’ve been very impressed with the dedication of the WISD staff working with students and their parents, as well as the Klaras Center, Communities in School, Methodist Children’s Home, and many other wonderful organizations providing support to families in our area.
Parent Contributing to Non-attendance is a criminal offense, but we are working to get the children in school and I seldom impose a fine unless I’m dealing with a parent who simply won’t make the effort to get their children to school regularly.
There are also criminal juvenile offenses, such as tobacco or alcohol use, school offenses, and traffic offenses.
Justices of the Peace are also magistrates. Magistrate duties include reviewing and authorizing arrest and search warrants, authorizing Emergency Protective Orders, and in McLennan County, the JPs also alternate doing weekend arraignments for the McLennan County Jail and the Jack Harwell Detention Center. Arraignment involves informing detainees of their legal rights, including the appointment of counsel if the prisoner is too poor to afford one, reviewing arrest affidavits to determine if there was sufficient probable cause for the arrest, setting the bond amount and conditions of the bond for offenses such as DWI, family violence, and child victim cases. The magistrate also reviews and decides whether to grant an Emergency Protective Order in family violence or stalking cases, and may be involved in mental health referrals and notification of a foreign consulate if requested by an arrestee who is a foreign national.
As a magistrate, JPs evaluate emergency mental health warrant applications and determine if the circumstances are appropriate to grant an Emergency Detention Order. This is a responsibility I take very seriously. I consider denying someone his or her liberty, even if only for 48 hours for a mental health evaluation, to be a very serious thing.
In counties that are not large enough to support a medical examiner, the Justices of the Peace perform the necessary death inquests. Generally, these are “unexpected or questionable” deaths, which include persons who die at home while not on hospice care, accidental deaths and suicides, traffic deaths, homicides, and persons who die in an emergency room or in the hospital, but who have not been in the hospital for over 24 hours.
An inquest involves gathering all the demographic information (name, DOB, address, time and place of death, next of kin, etc.) and all the circumstances surrounding the death. The JP then makes a determination of whether or not an autopsy is required. Because both hospitals are in our precinct, Judge Peterson and I perform many more inquests than the other JPs in the county. In the 27 months I have been in office, I have done more than 350 death inquests.
I am often asked how I can do the death inquests. It’s hard to explain, but I am a person of strong faith and it is very obvious that the deceased’s soul has already departed. This absence of soul renders the scene much more clinical. One’s heart breaks for the family, but I consider it a privilege and a ministry to help the family in any way I am able.
Clearly, this is not a job everyone would enjoy, but I find it endlessly interesting. Every day is different. I have found my background to be uniquely well-suited to the variety of issues I have encountered as a JP. As the Land Manager of a small energy company I wrote and administered millions of dollars in acquisition, production, and operations contracts, which has been very helpful in small claims cases. I have owned and operated three small businesses, including a residential construction company, which has come in handy in several cases related to construction or small business issues. In college I managed a small apartment complex, which gave me an acquaintance with the eviction process. Growing up with a doctor, particularly one who spent the second half of his career in psychiatry, has been very helpful both in death inquests and in evaluating a request for an emergency mental health warrant.
I love my job and community. Every day is new and different challenge.