If you’re lucky, you’ll never have an interaction with the City of Huntsville’s Municipal Court System. Unfortunately, something as minor as a parking violation or traffic ticket would break that streak.
Besides traffic offenses, Huntsville’s Municipal Court handles several types of cases, including DUI, domestic violence, theft, marijuana possession, assault and environmental court. Environmental cases include violations of the City’s weed and nuisance ordinances, animal control, illegal dumping, noise control and fire code violations.
While some might assume the worst about those who run afoul of the law, Municipal Court Judge Lonzo Robinson said they are simply humans who had a lapse in judgment.
“It’s easy to wind up in court if you and your wife got into it and you lost your temper or you went to a corporate outing, had a few too many drinks and tried to drive home,” he said. “Sometimes people make mistakes, and it may be a citizen’s only contact with the criminal justice system. Still, there are consequences and what the law says we must do as a court.”
‘Here to help’
With a growing population of more than 227,000 people in the city limits of Huntsville, the Municipal Court System is experiencing comparable growth. Excluding parking tickets, the court handles 45,000 to 50,000 cases per year.
Robinson, along with Judges Sybil Cleveland and Jeff Grimes, are the system’s three full-time judges.
“The City is growing, and our population is growing,” Robinson said. “We’re getting more of everything.”
The City’s court system employs about 54 people, some of whom work in the magistrate office. Open 24/7, the office conducts probable cause hearings and determines whether a warrant or complaint should be issued. The office also sets bail and approves bonds.
Municipal Court oversees several programs designed not to punish, but instead give people a second chance. Those include Probation, Pretrial Diversion and Mental Health Court. A Defensive Driving School is offered to traffic offenders who don’t want the infraction on their record.
“We’re here to help people,” Robinson said. “That’s the best part of what we do.”
Having a positive impact on a person’s life is what Robinson enjoys most about his job. He was appointed Presiding Judge in 2017 after serving as the City’s chief prosecutor. A U.S. Navy veteran, Robinson is a graduate of the University of Alabama in Birmingham and holds a law degree from the University of Alabama.
“I don’t remember when that decision was made,” Robinson said with a laugh after being asked what led to his legal career. “I’ve been a prosecutor, defense attorney and now I’m a judge. I’ve seen the legal process from all different angles.”
He explained programs like Mental Health Court and Pretrial Diversion are growing in significance, and not just because the caseload is increasing. The court, which is tailoring programs to meet the needs of veterans and the unhoused, also wants to help people.
We’re here to help people. That’s the best part of what we do.” – Municipal Court Judge Lonzo Robinson
“Our Mental Health Court is designed to prevent recidivism, which occurs when a person relapses into criminal behavior,” Robinson said, adding the court requires defendants to undergo counseling and see both a psychologist and psychiatrist. “For our unhoused, we try to find them a place to live and provide the skills necessary to be able to stay there.”
His biggest frustration is seeing repeat offenders in court who turn down available resources. A minor infraction can be an opportunity to turn over a new leaf, if people are willing to put in the work.
“If someone can’t afford to pay a traffic ticket, we’ll sometimes continue those for three or four months,” he said. “If someone says they have a disability, I may send them to a skills development program at Drake State or Calhoun Community College. If they go, I’ll waive fines and court costs. If they don’t have a diploma but can show me they’re progressing with their GED, I’ll waive fines and court costs. We’re here to help, but sometimes people don’t want to take advantage of it.”
Ease of use
In addition to the myriad programs offered by the court, Robinson wants the system to be more user-friendly. A new records management system is set to go live in August, which will provide staff with quicker access to digital records and resources.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered the court for only two weeks, highlighted a need to rely more on available technology. He doesn’t know if the court will ever be fully paperless, but he’s striving for paper-light.
“I want to ease the foot traffic by having more online payments and provide more online filing options for lawyers,” Robinson said.
Looking ahead, he said there could be a need to establish a satellite office in Huntsville’s fast-growing western corridor. If nothing else, there could be a greater reliance on virtual arraignments.
“We’ve definitely increased our reliance on technology since I first got here,” Robinson said. “I would like to keep moving the court into the 21st century.”