If you’ve been driving around southern Denton County during the last few months you’ve probably seen that hand-waving sign, moving to and fro along the side of the roadways. Yes, it’s none other than Justice of the Peace Jay Hand, making good use of an easy-to-remember surname.
The Denton County Precinct 4 J.P. is running for his third four-year term in office and is now in a runoff that will be decided on May 27. With a background in law-enforcement that includes a stint with the Dept. of Justice as a drug-enforcement agent, Judge Hand of Flower Mound has more than enough experience for his current job, which consists of misdemeanors, juvenile crimes, evictions, traffic offenses and some civil cases.
“A Justice of the Peace is someone who runs what I call ‘the people’s court,’” Hand said, during a recent interview at my home. “We make judgments on offenses that don’t reach the level of more serious issues, which are dealt with by higher courts,” he added.
“Let’s say you hired a builder to do some work on your property. Suppose he requires money upfront, let’s say $1,000, for building materials and you give it to him. Suppose further, that he takes the money and you don’t hear from him again. That’s a JP case, and all you need is to render some information about the company, so the authorities can serve them with the papers and bring them to court. There’s a small filing fee that runs from $31 to $150, depending on how many defendants are involved.”
Hand says it would cost a lot more if it had to be adjudicated in a higher court, where the filing fees start at $511 and an attorney may be needed. “The whole purpose of the JP court was designed so that people feel they can get a fair sense of justice without having to hire an attorney. About 95% of JP’s in Texas are not attorneys. Although you can be an attorney, the legislature saw fit to make it available to those who are able to use their common sense and good judgment in the administration of justice”
Judge Hand says he is a full-time JP and often works weekends. “There are times when people want to get married on the weekend, and I’m generally available to perform the nuptials,” he said with a smile. “We have office hours, and sometimes we work beyond those hours, attending meetings and such. Every so often, you’re required to go to Lubbock, Texas for mandatory training that brings you up to date on laws that have changed.”
Hand says the JP court keeps backlogs to a minimum, even though there are new cases coming in every day. “Since I’ve been on the court there’s been about 4,000 to 5,000 cases filed every year. I also handle several hundred arrest warrants annually, which requires a review of the affidavits and signatures authenticating them.” He said people that don’t show up after a warrant has been issued can be held in contempt in absentia.
The court also deals with scofflaws by having DPS pick them up, take their driver’s license and give them a receipt for it. The receipt is good for 30 days. If they don’t appear in court to pay their fines and have their license returned, they lose it. Although jury trials aren’t requested often, he says everyone charged with an offense has a right to a trial by jury. In cases being tried at a JP court, there are 6 jurors. For criminal trials the verdict must be unanimous, while civil cases can be decided by a 5 to 1 vote of jurors. If someone asks for a jury trial in a civil suit and fails to show up for the proceeding, they can be billed for hundreds of dollars to pay for the cost of impaneling the jury, and other court costs. When asked if he has had many of his cases appealed, Hand said he has cases that are transferred to another jurisdiction due to the nature of the charges. For example, long-distance commercial truck drivers, who could lose their livelihood if their license was revoked, may, in some instances, have their cases transferred to a central location where their corporation can deal with it.
In those cases, Hand says the drivers can plead guilty, pay the fine and any other costs they owe, but it’s never actually heard in a JP court. “Half of it is done on the phone,” he said. “They call and ask what the fine is for the violation and the next thing you know the check and all the necessary paperwork arrives.” He emphasized that those are not appeals. “Let me tell you very clearly, no criminal case I’ve heard in 7 years, not one, zero, has been appealed.”
Jay Hand seems like an affable guy with a good sense of humor and a strong common sense view of justice. As for the campaigns he’s been in over the years, he says, “I consider people running against me as opponents, not enemies.” Given the usual negative nature of politics, I think his attitude deserves a Hand. Sorry about that; I couldn’t resist.
Bob Weir is a long-time Flower Mound resident and former local newspaper editor. In addition, Bob has 7 published books that include “Murder in Black and White,” “City to Die For,” “Powers that Be,” “Ruthie’s Kids,” “Deadly to Love,” “Short Stories of Life and Death” and “Out of Sight,” all of which can be found on Amazon.com and other major online bookstores.