Southeast Memphis resident Carlos Paloma nervously stands before Shelby County environmental court judge Larry Potter in a conference-room-turned-courtroom at the Ridgeway police precinct on a recent Thursday afternoon.
One of the first defendants in Hickory Hill's new environmental court, Paloma is charged with storing trash under his carport and allowing weeds to grow around a trailer parked in the grass beside his house.
Paloma tells the judge that the mess has been cleaned up. A police officer confirms that the trash and trailer were gone when he patrolled the area that morning. Paloma, however, insists that his roommate was responsible for the charges. Potter tells Paloma that he was ticketed because his name was on the lease.
"As long as you keep the property clean, we won't have a problem," Potter says as he dismisses the charges. "But you need to have what we call in the South a 'come-to-Jesus' meeting with your roommate."
Case after case on Thursday's opening session of the new community court dealt with similar charges: cars parked in yards, loud-music complaints, trash piled in backyards.
"The environmental court deals with a hodgepodge of issues related to quality of life," says John Cameron, environmental court referee. "We hear state nuisance cases like hotel closures. We hear state charges relating to fishing or hunting without a license. And we hear code violation cases, cruelty to animals and dog-fighting cases."
Though many of these cases are heard in the environmental courtroom at 201 Poplar, Potter holds community court sessions twice a month in Whitehaven, Frayser, Orange Mound, Millington, Arlington, and Hickory Hill. The Hickory Hill court, which covers all of Southeast Memphis, meets on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month.
"Coming down to 201 Poplar can be an intimidating experience for people," Cameron says. "We like to go out into the community because we're not seeking to punish people. We're just seeking compliance. It's also easier for the defendants to get in and out because court is being held in their neighborhood."
A couple of citizen groups in Southeast Memphis — the Southeast Memphis Betterment Association and the Police and Citizen's Alliance (PACA) — have pushed for a community court in Southeast Memphis since last fall.
"Hickory Hill has such a reputation citywide, and the media identifies anything that happens from Hacks Cross to the airport as Hickory Hill," says Bob Morgan of PACA. "We have a big reputation to work against."
Both Morgan and Potter hope that the court will encourage people to keep their yards clean.
"I don't expect we'll have Hickory Hill cleaned up this year, and I don't think we'll have it completely clean in a couple of years," Potter says. "But we're going to work on it one case at a time."