As he has for the past 13 years, Charleston Municipal Judge Michael Molony convened the city’s Livability Court on Monday to deal with almost 100 cases of noise complaints, litter and unkept properties — relatively minor offenses that once slipped through the cracks but that many consider crucial to keeping the city a nice place to call home.
But now Livability Court itself is on trial.
A Mount Pleasant woman who manages college rental properties downtown has filed a lawsuit in the S.C. Supreme Court claiming that the city court is unconstitutional, partly because she alleges it improperly handles civil matters.
The city’s lawyers say the court has been properly established — and that the woman, Connie Spence, can’t show that she has been harmed by it. Her most recent citation, which involved a November littering incident at a rental property on 58 Bull St., has not even been ruled on.
The Supreme Court’s justices in Columbia ultimately will decide what to do, and Charleston residents and neighborhood leaders say much is at stake.
As Molony took the bench at 8:30 a.m. Monday, he explained that while Livability Court is a criminal court of law — where defendants have the right to a lawyer or jury trial — he is more interested in solving problems than collecting fines or sending anyone to jail.
He heard 16 cases in the first hour, most of which involved public-nuisance citations given to college students who had loud parties.
The three students cited for a Coming Street party was a typical case. Robert Ballard, neighborhood association president, returned home around midnight last month and heard the commotion. A city officer broke up the party and cited the three young women who lived there.
“This is the most common problem. The vast majority of cases come from college students who rent,” Molony said, adding that he recently met with new College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell to talk about these issues.
“It’s a wonderful school, but unfortunately, this is a problem. It’s got to stop. It stops with me,” Molony said.
Molony dealt with several similar complaints, and the students mostly offered hushed, respectful, partial explanations for what they did.
“I was a little drunk,” one student told Molony, to which the judge replied, “ ‘Animal House’ was a movie. It’s not something we have here in Charleston.”
When the students pleaded guilty, Molony fined them $850 each — a break from the $1,092 maximum — and warned them a second offense would land them in “the Al Cannon hotel,” also known as the county jail.
While individual fines can seem big, the city collects less than $160,000 a year from all fines and fees levied in its courts — about a tenth of 1 percent of its $150 million budget.
“This is not a money-making process,” City Councilman Mike Seekings said of Livability Court. “This is a process of making sure Charleston is the place it should be: a place people want to live.”
Ballard and his wife, Sallie, have lived in Radcliffeborough for more than 30 years, and they have seen the neighborhood change to where about 60 percent of his neighbors rent.
He also has seen the change that Livability Court made after its creation in 2002.
Previously, all cases went to one judge whose court would become backlogged with requests for jury trials.
As the judge grappled with cases ranging from domestic violence to driving under the influence to animal control, he had to prioritize, and many of the nuisance-type cases slid by.
Then the city created a new court whose role was to focus on livability issues — relatively minor offenses, unless they’re occurring right next door.
“That’s the best thing to happen to the court system, divvying up the livability issues from the regular municipal issues,” Ballard said. “It’s worked wonders.”
In 2004, Mayor Joe Riley even accepted a top award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors that recognized the court’s work.
But other critics have questioned the court’s constitutionality and noted that S.C. Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal once advised cities against creating new courts to deal with violations of local ordinances, such as smoking bans. She sent out a 2009 memo saying, “The creation of these courts is repugnant to the long-standing concept of the state uniform judicial system.”
But Molony has noted Livability Court is essentially the same idea as the city’s traffic court, another way that the city has divided up its court by case type.
Over the years, Livability Court’s cases have raised the curtain on the colorful characters that call Charleston home, from a case of cat-scratch marks on a Jaguar parked near The Battery to a pet squirrel that slipped its leash and bit someone in a downtown restaurant.
But Ron Horne said there’s nothing amusing about the persistent noise and litter near his Bull Street home, where he has lived for decades.
He said he has called the city about problems only about 10 percent of the time, but he still has made about 20 such calls.
“I’ve picked up their garbage. The neighbors have picked up their garbage. I’ve had cups thrown in my yard. They’ve kept me up at night screaming and yelling,” he said. “It’s amazing that I’m still in this neighborhood, to be quite honest with you.”
It was a Nov. 17 citation, written at 8:30 a.m. for accumulated beer-can trash at 58 Bull St., that resulted in the current challenge to the court.
Connie Spence, who runs Atlantic Property Management, used to live on the street but moved to Mount Pleasant in 2007. She manages about 100 rental units and received her first tickets from Livability Court five years ago for trash and nuisance violations, according to her affidavit.
She said the trash was from a party her tenants held the night before — a party she didn’t know about, her affidavit said. The trash was cleaned up less than 12 hours after the ticket was written.
When she asked for a delay in her trial, the city wrote her at 58 Bull St. — neither her home nor business address — and declined to release any details about the litter to her attorney, except for the citation, it said.
Spence, her attorney and city officials declined comment for this story beyond what they filed with the Supreme Court.
But Frank Rupp, president of the Harleston Village Neighborhood Association, said the 58 Bull St. rental has been a problem for years — and the court’s continued ability to deal with problems there and similar problems across the city will affect people’s quality of life.
Not all students cause problems, he said, but those who do often find themselves before Molony, face a big fine and a lecture about jail time — a message they pass along to fellow students.
“It’s made a difference in the residential nature of the neighborhood,” Rupp said. “The reality is that Livability Court came about because the city couldn’t handle the problems.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.