Mercy and Justice in Mississippi’s Justice Courts

March 10th, 2016     General News

“I shall temper so justice with mercy.”     John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667

An item about delinquent fines on the county board’s Monday agenda proved once again that Mississippi is the State of Irony. And it reminded me of a classic example of irony that could only have happened in Mississippi.

Near the dead center of the state is an area known as “Four Corners,” so named because the borders of four Mississippi counties converge there. The counties are Attala, Winston, Leake, and Neshoba. It is an area of steep wooded hills and low population density, and it is where one of America’s folk crafts has been practiced skillfully for as long as anyone can remember. Whiskey, sometimes pretty good whiskey, moonshine, is made in the Four Corners.

During the 1990s I had been to a party at a hunting camp in the area, had met an agent of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC), and he and I, along with several others consumed a dram or two of fine whiskey. It was legal whiskey we drank that night, “government” whiskey, the excellent produce of Kentucky on which all federal and state taxes had been duly paid. The ABC agent and I struck up a friendship.

A few days later he called me at my newspaper office and asked me to join him, “While we ride down to Four Corners and bust up Pete Kale’s still.” I remarked that it seemed an inhospitable way to spend a morning, but agreed to go along to witness this state-sanctioned hooliganism.

“Making whiskey is hard work, and there’s not many left who’re willing to do it.”

ABC Agent Dan Wright chuckled and agreed that it was indeed a dastardly way to make a living. He picked me up in his State of Mississippi pick-up, and we rode down Highway 25 toward the scene of the intended crime.

“Pete’s a good old man,” said ABC Agent Dan Wright, ” and he makes pretty good whiskey. Making whiskey is hard work, and there’s not many left who’re willing to do it. Pete’s one of the few good ones, The county sheriff got a complaint from a neighbor who smelled it. Put the sheriff on the spot, so he called us. Breaking up Pete’s little operation is just something we have to do from time to time.”

After a while we turned off of the paved road,  drove a couple of hundred yards down a dirt track through the trees, and there we met a couple of other state whiskey agents. We could smell the mash as soon as we got out of the truck. We walked another hundred yards to the distillery, which was covered by a brush arbor and was untended; no fire under the cooker. Four 55-gallon barrels of mash were doing their silent work.

"Untended, no fire under the cooker; four 55-gallon barrels of mash doing their silent work."

“Untended, no fire under the cooker; four 55-gallon barrels of mash doing their silent work.”

“Mr. Pete pretty much works by hisself,” my friend Dan explained. “Has a boy that helps him pack in water and grain and sugar, but hasn’t fired it up to make any product yet this morning.”

Then to the other ABC guys, “I’ll go up to his house to get Pete, and we’ll get to work.”

Dan and I got into the pickup, rode  back up to the paved highway, then drove half-a-mile to a small, neat three-bedroom brick house, the kind of which hundreds were built in Mississippi during the prosperous 1960s.

A black man, tall and well-knit, perhaps 75 years old, came out on the porch as we got out of the truck. “Mr. Dan, I was afraid that might be you,” called out Pete Kale. “With you in just a minute. Gots to go get my fine money.”

He was soon back, a brown paper bag wadded up in his left hand. He and Dan Wright shook hands. They each asked about the other’s health, etc. Then Pete Kale said, “Better go at it. Daylight’s wastin’.”

He walked a few feet to an ancient GMC pick-up, which started instantly, before the starter had even spun the engine a full turn. He turned onto Highway 25 and drove slowly down to the dirt trail, then into the woods. Dan Wright followed in the ABC pickup. “What was that about going to get his fine money?” I asked Dan during the short ride.

Wright smiled. “The deal is if you get caught making moonshine, the fine and court costs come to $428. But you don’t have to pay that fine right away. You pay the fine for the LAST time we busted you up.

“That’s what he had in the paper sack, his fine money from the last time we tore up his still almost two years ago. He gives that cash to the court clerk . He pleads guilty. The Justice Court judge fines him again and releases him without making him pay the new fine.”

“Does he have to post bail?” I asked.

“Oh, hell no. Pete’s a solid citizen. He’ll be here and have his fine money handy the next time they make me come down here.”

We got to the end of the trail. Pete got out of his old GMC and waited while Wright and I walked to where he was. Wright shook a Marlboro out of his pack for Pete Kale and lit it for him. Pete inhaled deeply. “Thank you, Mr. Dan. Ain’t smoked a store-bought one in a long time.”

Then we walked the rest of the way to the manufacturing facility together.

"Frothy beer started to flow onto the ground."

“Frothy beer started to flow onto the ground.”

A big young ABC agent wearing a Mississippi State ball cap, a pick hoe resting on his shoulder, indulged himself in a smirk when Pete Kale arrived at the still. Then Mississippi State drove one point of the pick hoe into a mash barrel just a few inches from the bottom. Frothy beer started to flow onto the ground. Then the same thing to the other mash drums. Two holes at the bottom of each one. Then he caved in the thumper keg with a heavy hammer.

Pete said nothing, his face revealing nothing, stood patiently smoking the cigarette.

Mississippi State seemed to be enjoying the work, which was embarrassing, rude to everyone else. He picked up the pick hoe again and quickly punched two holes in the cooker. He was about to take another swing when Dan Wright spoke to him sharply, “That’s enough, Jed. Take a break and start on your paper work.”

We drove back to town, Pete following in his GMC. Dan Wright dropped me off at the newspaper office and went on to the courthouse.

That was in another Mississippi County and a long time ago. But Justice Court still works more or less the same.

MercyGet arrested for a misdemeanor and the Justice Court Judge fines you. Then, if you convince the judge you don’t have the money with you to pay the fine and court costs, he gives you 30 days to bring the fine money to the justice court clerk. Mississippi statutes do not allow a Justice Court Judge to put a misdemeanor offender in jail the day the fine is levied, if the defendant can’t afford to pay it.

I you don’t bring your fine money to the court clerk in 30 days, the court will probably issue a warrant for your arrest. But it’s highly unlikely the arrest warrant will be executed. That work is done by part-time constables, who are elected for four-year terms.

The two constables are kept busy serving civil law suits and subpoenas.

According to Union County Justice Court Judges Chris Childers and Bruno Garrison, the constables are paid $35 each time they serve a warrant, and if the person convicted of the misdemeanor comes and pays his fine and court costs. The person owing the fine also has the option of working it out at $7.50 per hour picking up trash or some such work at the courthouse or fairgrounds. In that case, however, the constable does not get his $35.00.

Justice Court Clerk Larissa Edwards told that persons jailed for failure to pay fines get credit of $25 per day for each day they stay in jail. So, eight days in jail pays off a $200 fine.

The net result is that Union County, and most of the other 81 Mississippi counties, have massive amounts of uncollected Justice Court fines on their books.

Commit an egregious misdemeanor — drunk driving or beating up your wife or kids — and Childers and Garrison will put you in jail without hesitation.

However, if you commit a minor traffic offense or throw litter on the roads or some other minor misdemeanor, Mississippi law requires that you be shown considerable mercy when it comes to paying fines levied by Justice Courts.

Mississippi, the State of Irony.

[Editor’s note: The story is true. The names have been changed to protect the guilty. Pete Kale has died. One of his sons ran the still for a while, but found it not worth the trouble and ceased manufacturing.  I do not know whether there are any entrepreneurs left in the Four Corners who are willing to do the hard work of making whiskey.]

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