Judge: Sixth Amendment curbs jail time in drinking party debate

By Jason Hawk - jhawk@civitasmedia.com



Judge Thomas Januzzi was not pleased with how he’d been painted.

I flagged down the Oberlin Municipal Court judge last Wednesday near both our offices to ask about his approach to sentencing — and got a quick primer in constitutional law.

The question arose from a discussion by Amherst city council on a proposed “social host” ordinance that would criminalize the negligence of parents when underage drinking parties happen under their noses.

While discussing penalties for those parents, Amherst prosecutor Frank Carlson said jail time was unrealistic.

“The judge in the Oberlin Municipal Court has said, ‘I’m not going to put anybody in jail for a violation of an ordinance.’ There’s reasons for that,” he told council, listing fines and community service as the likely sentencing for offenders. During the meeting, he repeated that the judge would not impose jail time but never explained why.

Januzzi, after talking with the News-Times, sent a letter to Amherst city council members and mayor Mark Costilow.

He wrote that “any implication that the judge refuses to impose a jail sentence for ordinance cases is simply untrue, mischaracterizes how the Oberlin Municipal Court addresses these cases, and is contrary to the goal of the court and this judge, which is to administer justice fairly, impartially, and lawfully. The mischaracterization is unfortunate and regrettable.”

The right to counsel when there is the possibility of incarceration has long been recognized by the United States Supreme Court, he wrote, citing the 1963 Gideon v. Wainright decision.

In short: Defendants who are unable to pay for an attorney are supposed to be afforded a public defender. Amherst and other local cities don’t pitch in to help pay for those lawyers, but the county does — which means Januzzi and other judges in most cases face a Sixth Amendment quandary when sending people to jail over broken local laws.

They often do, however, impose jail time when state laws are broken.

For example, there is a mandatory 30- to 60-day jail sentence for a third drunk driving conviction in a six-year window. As a practical matter, those offenders are charged under statute, Januzzi said. He also pointed out that cities must pay for jail stays when someone breaks probation.

Carlson reached out to the News-Times via email to clarify his statements, repeating the Sixth Amendment concerns.

“The United States Constitution requires the appointment of counsel to indigent defendants in cases where the person’s liberty is at stake,” he wrote. “State funds are available to appoint counsel for violations of state law. Unfortunately there no funds available to appoint counsel for ordinance violations. It logically follows that no jail sentence should be imposed for an ordinance violation. It is not that the judge ‘refuses’ to give jail time. Rather he feels properly constrained not to.”

Discussion of the social host ordinance continued Monday, with most comment on the issue coming from councilman Joe Miller.

“I have a problem with the way we’re going about this piece of legislation,” he said, criticizing the “very low threshhold” it sets for charging parents with negligence. Facing a fourth-degree misdemeanor charge for failing to lock the refrigerator at night is “too subjective” and “a tough spot to put law enforcement in as far as where to draw the line,” he said.

Miller said the higher legal standard of recklessness should be used, meaning that parents know drinking is going on and just don’t care or even make it available.

Council is now looking at first-, second-, and fourth-degree misdemeanor charges depending on the severity of the alleged violation. Each carries a possible jail sentence.

The proposal was moved to a second reading in a 5-1 vote. Miller dissented and councilman Dave Goodell was absent.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.


By Jason Hawk