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A trial case isn't unusual in West Allis

Municipal court seems like place to be

Nov. 22, 2010

West Allis — "I'm going to give you two choices."

The words come from Judge Paul Murphy as he presides over one of many trials in the West Allis Municipal Court, where he can be found on the first and third Tuesdays of every month.

"You can pay $100 or you can pay nothing," Murphy tells the recipient of a parking ticket, somewhat exaggerating the true amount of the fine. "What would your preference be?"

Michelle Miller smiles and, naturally, chooses the latter. New to the city, Miller said she wasn't aware of West Allis' four-feet-from-the-curb rule, and, with the Wisconsin State Fair taking place nearby at the time, she was facing additional parking headaches.

Murphy understood. He found her guilty but did not make her pay a fine, adding: "Hopefully you'll stay around West Allis."

The Nov. 2 trial lasted about five minutes. The lone witness was the parking checker.

It's just one case in Murphy's courtroom - a sample in the kind of trials that (usually) don't make the nightly news, and they certainly aren't the stuff of movies or television dramas. Defendants don't always get off this easy, and the crimes can be much more serious.

Busy courtroom

But it is one snapshot of what officials say is one of the busiest municipal courts, outside of Milwaukee and Madison, in the entire state of Wisconsin.

West Allis' neighbors usually handle a just a few trials a month. Court clerks in other communities said many cases scheduled for trial don't actually make it that far - defendants either resolve the case beforehand or don't show up to court.

For example, Greendale has held 17 trials so far this year. New Berlin typically does about 10 to 12 trials a year, while a Wauwatosa clerk said the court there usually handles about a trial a month.

West Allis? A whopping 529 trials by mid-November. Murphy expects the final number to be well over 600, and in at least one year the city has handled more than 700.

A conservative estimate on the total number of cases the court processes is about 15,000, Murphy said.

The Wisconsin Municipal Judges Association stopped tabulating trials community by community, but it's a safe bet that West Allis is among the state leaders.

"I'm reasonably confident that we try more cases than virtually every other court," Murphy said.

"We try alot of cases."

Reasons and resources

The reasons behind those high numbers are easy to understand at first glance - West Allis police simply make a lot of arrests, and the city attorney's office makes sure they pay the proper penalty.

Deeper reasons lie beneath the surface - the economic status of residents, the high training level of police officers and a large number of bars and taverns per capita, to name a few.

But despite the number of cases and factors behind it, officials say it doesn't strain city resources too far.

The city attorney's office, for one, is still able to adequately handle the workload, said Assistant City Attorney Jenna Merten, who prosecutes municipal court trials for the city.

The attorney's office, on the second floor of in City Hall, is staffed by City Attorney Scott Post and three assistant city attorneys.

The same goes for the Police Department. Officers are often called to testify and may spend much of their morning in court waiting for a trail, but Police Chief Michael Jungbluth said the impact on overtime costs is minimal.

Court make-up

Those three entities - police, city attorney's office and municipal judge - make up the three-legged stool of the municipal court.

They are independent of one another and won't always agree, but they work closely together. Officials from all three entities said the system works well.

That's good, because it's a big, busy system.

Monday morning is the "return" day, where a person who receives a citation can pay the fine or plead not guilty in the court, in the same building as the police station at 11301 W. Lincoln Ave.

Not-guilty pleas then go to a pre-trial conference, which happen on Wednesdays with the city attorney.

Sometimes an agreement will be worked out and the case won't go to trial. In other instances, a trial will be held on the first and third Tuesdays of each month.

"It's an ongoing, never-ending paperwork process," Murphy said.

Agree to disagree

The most publicized West Allis Municipal Court case, at least since Murphy became judge in 2003, was Wisconsin's first open-carry gun case in 2009.

Murphy came to a decision that ran contrary to Police Department policy, finding Brad Krause not guilty of disorderly conduct after he was arrested for openly carrying a gun while planting a tree in his yard.

Even when they don't agree, officials say it never creates tension - Jungbluth said he understands why Murphy made that decision, and Murphy said he doesn't fault police for making the arrest.

Judging by society

Murphy, who has been elected twice as municipal judge and will run again this spring, also has a "very limited" law practice outside the municipal court.

But he spends a huge amount of time in court or working with other city-run programs. Especially trying to help young offenders, the city has implemented programs such as the Second Chance program and a first-offender program for underage tobacco possession.

"Punishment is one component of justice," Murphy said. "But so is rehabilitation, so are deterrents, so are rewards, so are incentives. We want these kids to succeed. We don't want them to go to prison.

"My goal, ideally, is to have the light bulb go on."

Many city officials, including Merten and Jungbluth, have lauded Murphy's efforts with young people.

"We're blessed in having an individual like Paul Murphy, who's here, who's linked to this community, cares about this community," Jungbluth said. "(He's) very outspoken when it comes to what he believes are our needs here, and that's really what you need from a position like that."

Still, it's the people whose lives he couldn't turn around that Murphy thinks about the most - like Amber Lewis, the West Allis high school student who was murdered in 2007.

"I'm very haunted by the failures," he said. "I should learn to cherish more the successes, but I'm very bothered by the people who, I just know, 'This isn't going to work.' "

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