A Day in the Life of Community Court

No pictures allowed inside the proceedings, hence an excellent photo of a gavel from a real courtroom, courtesy of  Joe Gratz

No pictures allowed inside the proceedings, hence an excellent photo of a gavel from a real courtroom, courtesy of Joe Gratz

En Español.

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When Mission Loc@l wrote last month about the city’s decision to try small-time offenders by a panel of neighborhood residents rather than a judge, we were told that we might never see the inside of one of these courts. Because they are relatively new, and very different from a criminal trial,  they are not subject to the same  government laws that traditional court proceedings are because that power is transfered to the community.

Then we got the call. Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Prozan said that a session of the court held at Mission Community Center would be open to the press on Tuesday afternoon between 1 and 3 p.m.  All we had to do was promise not to reveal any identifying information about the culprits.

Would we be there? Absolutely. These courts are supposed to save the city $1.5 million a year by allowing people arrested for minor offenses to voluntarily opt out of the traditional court system. Unlike traditional courts, community courts don’t have a court-appointed defense lawyer or prosecutor from the DA’s office, and a ruling in community court is not a criminal conviction, and won’t show up on a criminal record. Moreover, if the people are not satisfied with the directives from the panel members they can always go through regular court.

What follows is the complete docket of cases tried at the Mission Community Court at 534 Precita Avenue on June 28, 2011.

1. A longtime Mission resident got a citation on June 18 for vending without a permit after neighbors complained of several people selling items on the sidewalk. He was going through tough financial times, he said, and decided to sell some old T-shirts and a radio outside his apartment. “I thought I could do it,” he added.

The verdict: After learning that he never blocked the sidewalk and had no previous offenses, the panel of three community members dismissed the case.

2. A man and a woman, both homeless, slept on the steps of a church at 18th and Diamond streets. On the morning of June 22, a police officer woke them and gave them citations for trespassing.

The panel asked the couple why they sleep on the streets. “Because we feel more comfortable out there than being traumatized inside SROs,” the man said.

He said he can’t afford to pay tickets for trespassing and that he usually discards them when he gets one. But this time he was given a chance to go to community court, which he said gave him a chance to talk to a judge. It’s not that he doesn’t understand what private property is and why someone might be bothered, but, he argued, “Sleeping is a human necessity.”

The verdict: The couple were instructed to ask the church if they could do anything for them in return for the panel dismissing the citation.

3. A man was caught urinating next to a dumpster in an alley. He argued that he was waiting for his friends, and that the bars were already closed. The panel asked him if he had any other option, and he replied that he couldn’t think of any.

The verdict: The panel was sympathetic but ruled he should have gone to the restroom before the bars closed, and that the incident was bad planning on his part. He was ordered to either pay $100 or complete eight hours of community service. He chose the community service.

4. A man drove into the Mission from the Excelsior district, looking for a prostitute. He found one, but she was being followed by plainclothes officers, who saw her climb into the man’s car on Mission Street.

Police waited until both occupants — in the words of the police report — “started to move rhythmically” before they made their move. The man and woman were caught having sex when police approached the car and opened the door.

The man didn’t deny the accusation. The panel asked him to explain if he understood why prostitution is wrong. He said it gives the community a bad reputation. They asked him why he had to drive all the way into the Mission to find a prostitute, and he said that the Mission is just where the prostitutes are.

The verdict: The man was ordered to complete a $1,000 program designed for first-time offenders. As long as he completes the program, the incident will not appear on his criminal record.

5. The last case of the day involved a man who was standing on Cesar Chavez Street with friends during the early hours of the day. A friend offered him a beer and, as he was about to take a sip, a police car passed by. His friends all hid their containers and he was the only one who got a citation, the man said.

The panel was very concerned by the fact that the man was drinking at 9 in the morning. It sets a bad tone for the neighborhood and for children in the area, they said.

The verdict: The man was ordered to either pay a $100 fine or complete eight hours of community service. He chose community service.

And that was that. According to District Attorney (and former police chief) George Gascón, a case tried in criminal court costs about $1,500. A community court trial costs about $300, mostly to cover the upkeep of the city’s database of contracts with rehabilitation facilities and other reintegration organizations.

So they’re cheap. But in putting some people before a neighborhood panel instead of a judge or a jury, is the city being fair? Those unsatisfied with the panel’s ruling can decide to go through the old fashioned process if they decide too at anytime.

What do you think?

Filed under: Front Page, Trouble

2 Comments

  1. marco

    Sounds like it works out just fine, though I’m surprised there were only a handful of cases, given how many dozens of times each day I see such activity in the Mission. I don’t know why the “progressives” are so against such a community court, because it seems to save money, gives the community a voice, and helps direct offenders into services to help them with issues, or to other community service that is given as an option to fines.

  2. Drew

    “He said he can’t afford to pay tickets for trespassing and that he usually discards them when he gets one. But this time he was given a chance to go to community court, which he said gave him a chance to talk to a judge. It’s not that he doesn’t understand what private property is and why someone might be bothered, but, he argued, ‘Sleeping is a human necessity’.

    The verdict: The couple were instructed to ask the church if they could do anything for them in return for the panel dismissing the citation.”

    This seems not nearly enough, regardless of how one feels about homelessness. A carrot-and-stick approach is the only thing that will work. First, supportive housing and treatment as needed, followed up by community service as restitution seems like a sensible approach.

    There is so much that our district could address with community service — rampant street dumping, littering, and tagging graffiti. This is a full-time job, just look around.

    Community Courts seem like an excellent first step, and I am gratified for the most part. But equal application of the law is crucial, and chronic homelessness is not something that should be easily dismissed. It degrades quality of life for everyone.

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