My Night in Night Court
When I began my summer in Roanoke, I never imagined that my Living Democracy experience would involve a stint in court. Thankfully, my vantage point was from the attorney’s table rather than the defendant’s seat.
I’ve met so many interesting, kind, and generous people during my summer in Roanoke, and local attorney Kesa Johnston Dunn has been one of my favorites. Besides sharing a love of history and local revitalization projects, I’ve been consistently impressed with her efforts to give back to her adopted hometown through numerous civic groups and community projects.
Over lunch in early July, Johnston Dunn invited me and Marian Royston to attend court with her to get a better sense of Roanoke’s legal system. I’m finding this summer has been the summer of many firsts for me— this was also my first time in court.
However, I was not alone in my inexperience. Johnston Dunn admits that, before moving to Roanoke, she had never experienced night court either. In fact, she recalled that when she first heard about night court in Roanoke, she thought people were referencing the 1980s sitcom “Night Court”.
I had never been to night court in any other city. Most larger cities in Alabama don’t have them, but in rural municipalities, it is more common. “Oftentimes in these communities the judges and lawyers aren’t full-time employees of the city, so they commute from places like Auburn or Opelika and hold court outside their daily caseloads in these cities,” said Johnston Dunn.
When the time came for Marian and I to attend court, everyone at the courthouse/jail was incredibly warm and accommodating. We were ushered in to the courtroom and given a seat at the attorney’s table as Kesa prepared with a client. Over the next two hours, we were given a front-row seat to the city’s legal proceedings. It was truly fascinating, and I was amazed by the diversity of the cases presented to the court. Johnston Dunn explained that all the cases heard in this court were misdemeanors and ran the gamut of all non-felony cases in the area. Consequentially, Marian and I got to see an assortment of Roanoke’s legal offerings, ranging from a traffic violation to a probation hearing to a domestic assault trial.
Without going into too much detail over its specifics, one case in particular stuck out to me. In this case, an African-American woman was being questioned why she did not stop as soon as she saw a white male police officer pull behind her and turn on his sirens. She replied that she was trying to get to a well-lit area with security camera surveillance so that if anything happened to her, it would be captured on tape. She said that it was not that she expected a problem with Roanoke City Police in particular, but that, after the events of the past year with African-Americans dying during police encounters, she wanted to be reasonably cautious. In that moment, I tried to imagine myself in this woman’s situation, and I came to the conclusion that I likely would have acted just as she did.
It’s been incredibly interesting living in a rural community during a time of great change, a summer that has seen national tragedies and major Supreme Court cases. It’s easy to forget that these issues don’t happen in a vacuum and affect rural municipalities just as they do urban metropoles. Seeing local debates over gun control or same-sex marriage or the Confederate flag has made me realize that communities across the nation, large and small, would benefit from deliberative discussions over these major topics and has given me an appreciation for the additional complexities that rural municipalities face when engaging with these thorny issues.
Paradoxically enough, the paying of fines and fees, arguably the most run-of-the-mill, administrative task of the evening, perhaps interested me the most. These cases were a substantial part of the docket, taking up the better portion of the evening. Most of these cases followed the same basic format— the defendant would answer questions about the circumstances surrounding his or her tickets, then they would admit that they didn’t have the money to pay their fines yet. They would say they were working hard at industrial Company X to make extra money, and would return next month with their payment in full. The judge then deferred the tickets’ payment to the next session and ordered the defendant to come back the following month in order to pay his or her bill.
After court, Johnston Dunn invited us to her home, where we sat on her front porch and discussed the issues further. She explained that the county did not have a system that allowed citizens to pay for tickets online, so citizens were compelled to come to court to settle their debts. To help fund the administrative services they provided, the court assessed a $150 dollar court fee each time a defendant appeared in court. This fee sometimes amounted to more than the ticket in question and created a downward spiral because each time a person appeared in court to get a deferment of payment, the more expensive their fines became and the less likely they were to be able to find the money to pay it.
When interviewed at a later date, Johnston Dunn admitted that it was difficult seeing the circumstances that these citizens found themselves in over these fines and fees. “It’s disheartening sometimes to see how many of the same people are [in court] each month. It’s the same families dealing with familiar issues. Once they’re unable to pay the first time they appear, it creates a very difficult cycle to break,” she said.
In recent years, there have been increasing calls for prison and judiciary reforms on state and national levels. With some of the difficult issues that I saw in my time in court, it’s easy to understand these campaigners’ views. Thankfully, Johnston Dunn says there is a great team in Roanoke’s court system that cares about Roanoke and its citizens, and in my opinion, this is a necessary foundation for any meaningful change to our court system.
“There are some positives to operating the night court and circuit courts. We have a really great group of people working in these courts that are friendly and genuinely understanding. I work with good fellow lawyers, who are good people that care enough to give back to their community. There are just a lot of people who sincerely care and want the best for Roanoke,” said Johnston Dunn.
As the three of us sat on Johnston Dunn’s front porch and discussed Roanoke— its benefits, its challenges, and what I’ve learned as a Living Democracy Fellow—it occurred to me that conversations like these are where significant community action gets started. It takes a caring, willing group of citizens that commit to examining these issues together— assessing which building blocks they see in their community now and what they’d like to see in the town’s future.
Kesa Johnston Dunn and Marian Royston are just a few of the dedicated citizens of Roanoke I’ve seen that devote their time, talents, and energies toward making their community a better place, but I think that they symbolize something very integral and special about Roanoke. In my summer here, I’ve come to think of Roanoke as a city on the cusp— a beautiful community with warm, generous people who have an appreciation for the city’s past and an eye to the city’s future. With the help of people like Kesa Johnston Dunn and Marian Royston, I see the citizens of Roanoke actively striding toward the betterment of their community and a brighter future for all.