The court that deals with the little stuff
The grin on the 19-year-old College of Charleston student's face was long gone by the time the handcuffs clicked and the officer led her away.
Moments before, she and her two friends stood before Charleston Municipal Judge Michael Molony to face a charge of loud and unnecessary noise stemming from a party at her Spring Street apartment.
After a neighbor complained, a police officer arrived to find at least 30 people inside. Many were yelling. The stereo was cranked up.
Molony typically doesn't order defendants taken into custody, but something struck him in this particular case. Maybe it was their smiles. Maybe it was the late hour of the citation, which was written at 3:30 a.m. Maybe it was the date.
"Why should people have to put up with a loud party on Christmas Eve?" he asked in an earnest voice.
"That's almost a sacred night for a lot of people."
As her two friends walked out of the back of the courtroom with a shocked look on their faces, the defendant was led out the side door, in tears.
It's the little things
Welcome to Livability Court, Charleston's 8-year-old experiment to help residents get a better night's sleep and to tackle other petty crimes that can make the city a less desirable place to live.
It's the judicial venue that most reflects the eccentricity and uniqueness of this historic coastal city.
For instance, there once was the case of a feline scratching the paint on someone's Jaguar near The Battery, a case that drew many interested neighbors to Molony's courtroom.
And that wasn't nearly as strange as the trial involving someone's pet squirrel who bit a diner in a downtown restaurant.
"I said, 'How did that squirrel get out?' Molony recalled. "(The defendant) said, 'I had it on a leash.' "
The city created the court in 2002 because of a notion that too many municipal infractions were falling through the cracks.
If someone ignores a speeding ticket, the state can revoke their license, forcing them to run the risk of getting cited for the more serious charge of driving under suspension.
But if someone ignores a citation for not maintaining their property, it's trickier to crack down, especially if the municipal judge is hearing these cases along with more serious crimes, such as domestic violence and assault.
"It just doesn't get the traction it needs," Molony said.
A day in court
The approximately 150 defendants who appeared before Molony on Jan. 11 were typical, though their numbers were larger.
The court is normally held every two weeks, but it hadn't convened in a month because of the holidays. Even with college students out of town for much of this time, Molony's docket totaled more than 50 pages.
More than a dozen defendants, including one young woman, appeared on charges of public urination. Molony gave them each a fine and most of them a lecture along the lines of this: "Aren't you proud of yourself? If this happens again, you are going to go to jail."
Other common charges included owning an animal found running at large (six), open containers (14), soliciting without a permit (seven), underage drinking (nine), false alarms (nine) and loud and unnecessary noise (eight).
While many pleaded guilty, apologized and went on their way after paying a reduced fine, Molony suspended many sentences and ultimately will dismiss them if the defendants don't reappear in his court anytime soon.
Other cases triggered a lengthy conversation, such as the case of a West Ashley man whose two barking dogs have been waking his neighbors. He faced a $158 citation for having an animal disturbing the peace.
A neighbor said the dogs have been a problem at night ever since he moved there three years ago. He tried to talk with their owner, but "he just shut the door in my face. … Our objective here is just to get a good night's sleep."
The neighbor then ticked off the early morning hours in which the dogs had kept his family awake during the past month.
The owner apologized for tying up the city's resources in this case and said he was able to sleep through the barking. He had tried to put anti-barking collars on them and to keep them in at night.
Molony issued an order requiring the dogs be kept in the garage or the police could come and seize them if the problem continues.
"Why don't we try this?" he asked. "We can't make things perfect, but we can try to make things better."
A 'repugnant' idea?
There are others besides loud college kids or owners of barking dogs who have concerns about Livability Court.
Charleston lawyer Thomas Goldstein said he thinks the court is unconstitutional.
He has written a brief saying the court violates the state's constitutional requirement that courts be uniform. He said it also violates the constitutional provision requiring the rotation of judges, since Molony is the only judge who has presided there.
But he has not pressed the issue. Goldstein said his clients all have gotten satisfactory resolutions without having to appeal to a higher court, but he noted that S.C. Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal has advised cities against creating new courts to deal with violations of local ordinances like smoking bans.
Toal sent out a memo last year saying, "The creation of these courts is repugnant to the long-standing concept of the state uniform judicial system."
City officials disagree that Livability Court is unconstitutional or is what the chief justice was talking about. "It's just like traffic court," Molony said, referring to another way the city's municipal court divvies up its caseload.
And Mayor Joe Riley has been a strong supporter well before the court was given an award by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
"It really is just one of our best initiatives," Riley said. "The sense of order and the cleanliness and the peace and quietude -- all that has improved."
The city is considering restructuring its code enforcement teams to work more efficiently with the court, and Molony said the docket has grown so much that its vice cases might need to be split off from the other cases and given their own day.
Parking tickets too
Anyone who wants to appeal a decision of the city's parking hearing officer also appears before Livability Court.
On Monday, a young man who worked at the Lodge Alley Inn appeared before Molony and claimed that a meter maid harbored a personal vendetta against him.
Molony congratulated the man for having racked up more than $1,000 in tickets and fines.
"I'm not a bad person. I work hard," the defendant replied. "But that's $1,000 I can't afford to pay right now."
The man, like the others who showed up, received some reduction in his fine, while those who didn't show remained on the hook for their full amounts.
None of Monday's parking cases were nearly as interesting as the case of a man who appeared before Molony a few years ago with $900 in tickets that he couldn't pay.
When Molony asked what they were going to do about this, the man replied that they had a problem. He told the judge his car wasn't even worth that sum, so he simply gave Molony his keys.
The city had the car towed and auctioned off for $1,100.
"I mailed $200 back to the guy," Molony recalls, "and he sent me a nice thank you note."
Molony begins each session of Livability Court by laying down his rules -- no hats or cell phones or hands in your pockets -- and by explaining his take on the court's mission.
"I'm more interested in correcting the problem than simply finding someone guilty or innocent or having them pay a fine," he said.
For instance, Molony knew the 62-year-old homeless man who appeared before him Monday had bigger problems than his $470 loitering citation for sleeping at a bus stop near Broad and Meeting streets.
Molony appeared less interested in the crime than he did with where the man would spend the night, so he asked him to wait around to talk after all the other cases were heard.
"We can't have you sleeping in the bushes," Molony told him. "I don't want to read about you in the newspaper freezing to death."
Molony, who had seen the man in his court before, later asked him if he had a home or family outside Charleston, and whether he needed a bus ticket out of town.
The man replied that he expected to get Social Security benefits soon and had applied at an affordable housing complex. Molony deferred his case, apparently figuring there was nothing else he could do to help.
Molony's tougher side emerged earlier during a different loud-party complaint in Radcliffeborough on Dec. 17. This also involved a young woman, but she didn't show up in court.
But her neighbor on Radcliffe Place showed up and told Molony that the young woman's party had kept her awake much of the night as the woman's guests continued to hoot and yell profanities.
"The fact that she's not here today shows she has thumbed her nose at the system. That's totally inexcusable," Molony said. "I'm going to issue a bench warrant for her arrest. If she wants to hear some bad language, she'll hear a lot of that (in jail)."
As Monday's docket wound down around 2 p.m., Molony had an officer fetch the 19-year-old woman who he imprisoned on the Christmas Eve noise case.
She had spent the past few hours in a holding cell, and state law required her either to be set free or sent to the Charleston County Detention Center for booking.
Molony told her that he was releasing her for time served, warning her that "what you saw back there is what's going to happen to you if they're called back." She left the courtroom with a look of shock and relief.
Later, Molony declined to talk about the details of her case or his ruling except to say this:
"I can almost assure you she won't have another violation."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or at email@example.com.