August 1, 2019

A 79-year-old Ohio woman was recently sentenced to 10 days in jail for feeding stray cats near her home. It’s just the latest example of how city courts across the country have gone to the dogs.

Nancy Segura of Garfield Heights (yes, like the famous cartoon cat) is a cat lover who began feeding her neighbor’s cats, who were abandoned after the neighbor moved away. But other neighbors reported her to authorities for violating a local ordinance that prohibits residents from feeding animals they do not legally own. After four separate trips to city court for violating the ordinance, Segura had amassed more than $2,000 in fines, and she was handed the jail sentence. “I miss my own kitties, they passed away, my husband passed away. I’m lonely,” Segura told Cleveland.com. “So the cats and kitties outside help me.”

Segura’s story is a perfect example of how cities abuse their ability to attach criminal misdemeanor penalties to ordinance violations and then have them tried in city courts. But her story’s not an anomaly—it’s the norm. “People think that what happened to this lady facing jail for feeding cats is some exception to the rule. It’s not. This is the rule,” says Goldwater Institute National Investigative Journalist Mark Flatten, who’s the author of a series of special reports about city court systems. “Cities have the power in Arizona and other states to put you in jail for up to six months for violating some trivial ordinance or zoning code, and they do enforce it.”

As Flatten reports in his City Court series, Arizona and most other states vest in cities the power to impose criminal misdemeanor penalties for local ordinance violations. In Arizona, that means if you violate some local ordinance (as opposed to a state law) you can face up to six months in jail and $2,500 in fines for each count. Among the “crimes” in city ordinances that could get you six months in jail in Arizona are spitting on the sidewalk, failing to return a library book, having tall weeds in your yard, and smoking in a restricted area.

Cities argue that these over-the-top ordinances are never enforced and so people shouldn’t be concerned. But Flatten’s research shows that’s just not true. The Goldwater Institute’s review of jail bookings found that among the primary charges for which people were booked into Maricopa County Jail were violating the spitting ordinance in Mesa, violating various smoking ordinances, and having weeds taller than six inches.

At least the city court judges in Garfield Heights are elected, meaning they ultimately have to answer to the people and not the politicians. Perhaps that explains why they are now scrambling to review Segura’s jail sentence. In Arizona, defendants do not even have that protection. Instead, judges there are appointed and retained by the city council and never face voters. So if you’re charged with a crime and want to fight the charges, you are going up against the city police officer who arrested you and a city prosecutor handling your case in front of a city judge who answers only to the city council which passed the city ordinance. And on top of that, if you are convicted, the city gets hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines, fees and court costs. If you are acquitted, the city gets nothing.

“Do you really think you will get a fair hearing?,” Flatten asks of this situation. “This cavalier attitude about giving cities the power to criminalize what at worst amounts to rude behavior is why we end up with totally outsized punishments for minor violations.”

Segura is currently scheduled to report to Cuyahoga County Jail on August 11 for her own violation. “I’m sure people hear about the things that happen downtown in that jail,” Segura’s son said to local television. “And they are going to let my 79-year-old mother go there?” As long as city courts are allowed to issue such punishments—frequently without having to answer to the public for their actions—the answer for Segura and countless citizens like her is an unfortunate yes.

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