The Times West Virginian

Local News

March 1, 2014

Fairmont obscenities ordinance expanded

State statute copied into municipal code

FAIRMONT — The city of Fairmont has expanded its municipal obscenities ordinance to include not only harassment by phone, but also harassment by computer and electronic communication devices, adopting a law that has been on the state’s books since 2002.

“We took a West Virginia state statute that has been on the books since 2002, and copied it verbatim to put into the municipal code,” Jay Rogers, Fairmont city manager, said.

City council passed the ordinance unanimously Tuesday.

Rogers said that while the ordinance contains the exact same language as the state version, making it a part of municipal code will allow city police officers more flexibility.

“It just makes it a little easier on our officers to be able to run through the municipal court,” Rogers said.

He said that officers would work with the prosecutor’s office to determine whether or not a particular case should be referred to municipal or magistrate court. The municipal court charge can carry a fine of up to $500, while the state code version carries a fine of up to $1,000.

The change was implemented in response to a case handled recently by the city police.

“The issue was that an individual was making threatening and harassing statements to another individual, and they were doing it over the computer,” Rogers said. “Well, as you looked at our municipal code, we had the telephone portion of it, but we didn’t have anything about the computer portion.”

This meant that officers were limited to charging the person in magistrate court. But the individual was also facing other charges.

“And those charges were in our municipal code,” Rogers said.

The two systems run differently with different court schedules. In some cases, Rogers said, it may make more sense to charge someone at the city level, rather than through magistrate court, especially if they have other city charges leveled against them at the same time.

“So the officers got with me and the city attorney, and said, ‘Is there anything we can do?’ And the attorney’s answer was simple: ‘Yeah, we just pass an ordinance and put it into our municipal code, and then we can take them to municipal court,’” Rogers said.

Now that the ordinance has been passed, it will be up to the officer’s discretion whether to charge someone through magistrate or municipal court, though they will work with the prosecutor’s office to determine what is most appropriate.

“They yield to the prosecutor when it comes to that,” Rogers said.

Rogers said that, while many websites with message boards, forums and comment sections do a good job of “cleaning those things up” with their own website administrators, the problem comes up more in one-to-one social media and email interactions.

Rogers said that this ordinance is just one instance in a long tradition of adopting state code as municipal code.

“There will probably be a half a dozen laws that come out of the 2014 legislative session that we will turn around and adopt into municipal code,” Rogers said.

One example of a past state ordinance added to municipal code is DUI charges.

“DUI is a state law that we brought over into the municipal code,” Rogers said. “There are all kinds of laws that we just bring over from the state code.”

Email Colleen S. Good at cgood@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @CSGoodTWV.

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