City resident challenges legitimacy of code enforcement court

ST. GEORGE – The legitimacy of the St. George code enforcement court was called into question at an administrative hearing to resolve a zoning violation on Monday evening.

The hearing was in regards to an administrative case involving a citation issued against St. George resident John Rowley. Code enforcement officers cited Rowley last year after a neighbor complained that he was fixing cars for profit at his residence.

Rowley sued the city last month after the hearing officer presiding over the administrative hearing ruled that code enforcement officers conducted an illegal search of Rowley’s backyard, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

St. George attorney Aaron Prisbrey is representing Rowley in both the lawsuit against the city, as well as his code enforcement hearing. Last week, Prisbrey filed a motion requesting that the code enforcement hearings be halted altogether. On behalf of his client, Prisbrey argued that the administrative court does not have a set of written policies and procedures necessary to establish the conduct, scope, and authority of the administrative hearing.

‘”We are claiming that the code enforcement court is illegal,” Prisbrey said in an interview. “Everything is illegal because they have no rules.”

In court, Prisbrey cited St. George city code 1-12B-5-2 which states that “the administrative law judge shall develop policies and procedures to regulate the hearing process.”

Administrative Judge Brian Filter, who presided over the case, said that, although they are not written down, he does have a set of rules regulating the hearing process.

“There are indeed rules, counsel,” Filter said. At the beginning of every court session, he said, he explains to both parties how he conducts his hearings.

He keeps the formality to a minimum because most defendants do not have lawyers, Filter said. “It allows me to hear what they want to tell me. It allows them to feel comfortable,” he said. “The idea from my perspective is to open up the legal process and allow them to be heard.”

The problem with this informal method, Prisbrey said, is that it leaves too much leeway for the court to apply its unwritten rules unevenly, allowing bias, even if it’s unconscious, to influence the outcome of a case. For example, such leeway might result in a ruling that reduces the fines of a defendant who looks like a return missionary, Prisbrey said, but not for one with long hair and piercings.

By not having written rules in place, he said, it lends an unfair advantage to the city attorneys who are familiar with the administrative hearing officer’s informal rules of conduct.

“I come here having no idea what rule applies,” Prisbrey said, adding:

How can a rule that is in your mind – that (assistant city attorney) Miss Houston understands because you discussed it with her on a prior occasion – how can I or Mr. Rowley possibly understand or know what the rules are that apply to him as it pertains to hearsay, as it pertains to discovery, as it pertains to the issuing of subpoenas, as it pertains to service of process, as it pertains to every process.

Filter said that he could see where Prisbrey was coming from, but he wasn’t sure that he had jurisdiction to rule on the legitimacy of his own court.

“How can I, as the adjudicating officer and the witness, how do I decide on my own potential failure?” Filter asked. “It’s like something out of a Mel Brooks movie.”

Filter adjourned the hearing temporarily, suggesting that Prisbrey file a motion to either request a higher court to rule on the legitimacy of the hearing, or else file a motion for the court to dismiss the case entirely, as Prisbrey had suggested earlier in the hearing, on the grounds that the rules are too vague.

After Prisbrey files his motion and the city attorney’s office responds, Filter said he would rule on whether or not he would dismiss the case, or set a date for an evidentiary hearing.

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Twitter: @mflynnSTGN

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1 Comment

  • ladybugavenger November 5, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    That is way too much power for a court to have. Holy cow- lawlessness.

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