Dog barking late? I'll see you in livability court

Philip Inwood has had a tough time sleeping since he moved into his comfy Charleston neighborhood two years ago.

It's not worry about work that's robbing him of rest, nor even the nocturnal coos of the new baby in the house. Instead, the nighttime nemesis is "Trigger," the neighbor's rottweiler. "Basically, we've got a dog at large in the garden barking all night," he says.

But this week Mr. Inwood found a sympathetic judge in a trailer house that serves as the home for one of the nation's most unusual experiments in jurisprudence - the Livability Court.

From unkept yards to the unpleasant smell of sewage, the court tackles the minute misdemeanors that seem trivial to all but those experiencing these everyday nuisances.

It is the latest manifestation of the growing nationwide movement to improve the quality of life in urban areas, often using rudely stern measures. From New York to Seattle, mayors have tried to reduce crime by cracking down on minor offenses, in the hope that tidier neighborhoods and getting criminals off the street, even for petty infractions, will lead to an overall reduction in urban violence.

Charleston, however, isn't refereeing disputes over pugnacious pups and sloppy gardeners as a way to curb crime. It's being more Southern about it: It's trying to preserve the city's legendary civility.

"Before this court, judges tended to throw these kind of 'quality of life' crimes out," says Peg Moore, an editor of the Charleston Guardian, a newsletter dedicated to preserving the city's 19th-century charm. "I guess when you're dealing with ax murderers and drug dealers, these issues kind of pale in comparison."

Rated eight times as the "best-mannered city in America," Charleston's new court is in some ways vying to ensure its regal reputation. Or perhaps it's just that people here are too gracious to complain in person. (This being Charleston, the two officers enforcing noise-violation codes on the "tour bus beat" wait until tours are over to confront guileful guides - so as not to embarrass them.)

In an effort to maintain the somnambulant charm of a city known for its kempt cobbled streets and stately waterfront, the mayor tapped Judge Michael Molony, a charming Charlestonian with a steely streak, to sit at the court's low, fake-wood desk.

"From here on out, commercial activity is going to take a back seat to quality of life," Mr. Molony says. "And part of the reason for this court is to protect the people who have paid a lot to have these beautiful homes fixed up, and who deserve the kind of peace and quiet we had years ago."

To Truman Moore, another conservationist, Molony is Charleston's answer to Rudolph Giuliani, the popular New York mayor who took on zoning and petty crime to reform the Big Apple's image. Convening every two weeks, Judge Molony is expected to hear about 80 cases a month.

Indeed, the main thrust of the idea is to abjudicate the smallest complaint, and rule in such a way that "everyone knows exactly what is required of them," Molony says. The court even has a special police officer whose only job is following up on the judge's creeds.

"This judge don't play around," says Clarence Simmons, a city inspector. "He'll put them in jail if they don't follow his orders."

Still, Molony doesn't come off as rampant executioner. It quickly became clear that Molony sees that toughness can be effectively sweetened. In fact, he may have made history this week when he handed a defendant $5 out of his own pocket.

The man, Mike Grimm, had run up over $1,000 in parking tickets and had paid $410 to get his car out of impoundment. But he had a pretty good excuse: After 9/11, the infantryman was called to his Virginia National Guard unit to serve. Determining that soldier Grimm owed no more and had even overpaid, Molony handed him a refund.

"It's more than I had when I walked in here," says the relieved soldier.

And then there's the case of the doctor who wouldn't garden. Walter Luszki has lived at his Maple Street house for 51 years. According to neighbors, that's how long it's been since the lawn was cut. In the country, such a garden might grow, but there are rules in the city against out-of-control bougainvilleas.

Hoisting cardboard maps painted with permanent marker and white-out in front of onlookers in onlookers sitting in the court's plain plastic chairs, Dr. Luzki vowed his innocence, but Judge Molony had another idea.

He offered to call Luszki's nearest relative, a professor at Harvard, to come down South to help weed. But finally, Molony decided that a county jail work crew (a chain-gang type of situation) would trim the big plot. Luzki will have to pay the administrative fees. "You've lived here 51 years, and you're 88 years old, and I don't want to fine you $300 bucks," says Molony. "We're going to get you the appropriate help to clean it up."

But in the sad case of Peaches and Pumpkin, the defendant received less compassion. Charged with neglecting the two pit bulls, the owner insisted that her husband says "you treat the dogs better than me." But Molony was unimpressed.

"I have a dog who's almost as close to me as my sons," he said. "I don't think you're a bad person, but those dogs will not ever go back to you - it's over. This court is for the livability of every creature in the city."

Indeed, it was tough to find a critic of the court even amidst those who felt the sting of Molony's mallet. Earl Copeland, a tour bus operator, was fined $200 and sentenced to 30 days in jail for pulling his bus over in a neighborhood. But Mr. Copeland took his sentence in stride. "I think the court will actually help curb all the illegal operators who give us all a bad name," he says.

For Inwood, the sleep-deprived plaintiff, the Livability Court effectively ended a two-year-long search for midnight justice. "I don't want to punish anyone," Inwood says. "All I want is some sleep."

Trigger was remanded to the pound for 30 days until his owner, Birdie Frazier, could find him a new home. Ms. Frazier's jail sentence was suspended.

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