Courts
5:00 am
Tue March 5, 2013

Citizen's Court: Talking It Out With Your Neighbor

The Mecklenburg County Courthouse processes up to 1,600 misdemeanor cases a day. And administrators are always looking for ways to bring that number down so that judges have more manageable caseloads. One of the newest initiatives is mediation. Also known as Citizen's Court.

WFAE's Tasnim Shamma spent a day at Citizen's Court to see how well mediation was working … or not.

So there's this law in North Carolina ...

It's the one that gives you, as a citizen, the power to have an arrest warrant issued against just about anyone who you believe committed a misdemeanor crime against you.

No need to get a police officer involved in the investigation. Just give sworn statement, provide a witness or other evidence if you have it, and a magistrate will usually issue an arrest warrant.

You can get some unusual cases, says Mecklenburg Assistant District Attorney Bruce Lillie.

"When you have neighbors who are upset about basketballs bouncing into flower beds," Lillie says. "The criminal justice system is not set up to solve that problem. Mediators are."

Lillie helped set up Mecklenburg County's Citizens Court last year. The idea is to save time, and money.

That's Mecklenburg County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Lillie. He helped set up the county's Citizen's Court, which is in session every other Monday in courtroom 4330. 

On the first session in December, Theo X. Nixon was the presiding judge. 

"This is private warrant court, or citizen's warrant court," Nixon began. "This is an attempt by the court system and the legislature to try to resolve some differences between individuals without having to go to trial, without having someone getting convicted of a criminal offense and without repeated visits to this courtroom to resolve a case."

Judge Nixon encourages alleged victims and defendants to take advantage of mediators the court provides. Otherwise …

"Those of you that cannot resolve the disputes will be coming back into court and trying your cases out in front of me," Nixon says. "Someone is going to be leaving unhappy in that type of situation so that's something you need to consider in the process."

Several cases get dismissed on the prosecutor's recommendation. There's not enough evidence.

Perhaps the most interesting case of the day involved Jonathan Reid and his friend, 31-year-old Paul Young of Charlotte.

Reid says that Young pushed and shoved him, and hit him in the ribs, according to the arrest warrant. Reid's girlfriend is listed as a witness. Reid also alleges that Young accused him of stealing.

Two days after the incident, Young was arrested and booked in the Mecklenburg County Jail. He was charged with assault.

In Citizen's Court, they agreed to meet with a mediator. They return before Judge Nixon after a couple of hours. They had reached an agreement.

Nixon: You are Paul Young?
Young: Yes.
Nixon: You've had the opportunity to speak to Ms.Harris, your attorney?
Young: Yes.
Nixon: Who are the prosecuting witnesses in this case? Step on forward. Alright, Mr. Young, you were charged with simple assault class II misdemeanor. I'm sure your attorney discussed that with you. Both of you are willing to go forward with this? Who's going to be responsible for the $60 mediation fee?
Lillie: I believe it's going to be split.

Other than splitting the $60 mediation fee, the details of their agreement are not disclosed. The charges will be officially dismissed after that fee is paid. Not every misdemeanor crime is eligible for Citizens Court, like crimes involving domestic violence. Lillie says it's still too early to gauge the success of the program.

In December, the General Assembly passed legislation that requires all counties to consider implementing a form of Citizen's Court. Sixty-eight of the state's 100 counties currently offer some form of Citizen's Court according to Jody Minor, executive director of the Mediation Network of North Carolina.

Minor says last year there were more than 19,000 misdemeanor private warrants filed in North Carolina and mediation has been an effective way of dealing with these cases. Four more counties are scheduled to introduce mediation programs in their courts this June.