The newly installed officers of the Mendocino County Courthouse are already on the job. They have to be because several judges are gone: Leonard LaCasse retired, Jonathan Lehan gave notice, Ron Brown got sick… and John Behnke and Rick Henderson have been taking up a lot of the slack by themselves.
Only the newbie judges, Brennan and Moorman, were working by last Friday.
The Hon. Clayton Brennan seems to have been temporarily shunted from serious cases to minor matters after his flagrantly biased handling of the Clint Smith case. Smith was the Willits Charter School teacher tardily discovered to have been sleeping with a fifteen-year-old female student for nearly a year, that and dancing around nude for the girl via internet transmissions also viewed by the girl's twelve-year-old sister.
In the grand tradition of child and adult seducers, Smith had promised to leave his wife and family and marry the girl. Being a child, she believed him.
A unique support group composed of Willits' Mormons and North County liberals agitated for leniency for Smith. The Mor-Lib Alliance seemed to mesmerize Judge Brennan who let Smith off with County Jail time and no stipulation to register as a sex offender for an offense that gets unsupported defendants a perv ticket straight to state prison. Smith did a few leisurely months at Low Gap and returned to his wife and two children, the eldest of whom was a classmate of dad's victim.
The Willits Branch of the Superior Court was closed down following the Smith case and may even have been judicially exorcised, too, although the official reason given for abandoning it was budget constraints.
Brennan has now been promoted from the rote demands of conducting arraignments, hearing traffic infractions, and cheerleading the pep club at drug court; he is again being entrusted with real life court cases to see if he's learned anything. Meanwhile, the newly berobed Judge Ann Moorman, the Superior Court's junior judge, has taken over Brennan’s tasks while also filling in on the big stuff.
The new District Attorney, C. David Eyster, appeared in Brennan’s top-floor courtroom on Monday to personally conduct the arraignment of a young man accused of attempted murder, Chef Robert Fransen, 18, of Willits. Fransen was arrested January 10th at his home in Willits for stabbing a 19-year old Willits man.
As the young defendant sat patiently in the dock, Judge Brennan went scampering through the halls of justice, looking for the newly promoted Alternate Public Defender, Bert Schlosser. Mr. Schlosser was found by his junior partner at the Alternate Public Defender’s office, Lewis Finch. At the jail, the two of them are affectionately known as Bert & Ernie. The jailbirds have nicknames for all the Deputy DAs and Public Defenders:
The slender Deputy Public Defender, Carly Dolan, is known as “Olive Oil” and the blonde Shannon Cox is "Goldilocks."
Mr. Schlosser took a copy of the complaint against Mr. Fransen from Judge Brennan, entered pleas of not guilty on behalf of his new client, denied the special allegations and set the long judicial process in motion.
This first step in the march of justice could have been made by any of the Deputy DAs but DA Eyster had made an issue during his campaign of involving himself directly in serious prosecutions, and here he was.
I went down to Department G, Judge Ann Moorman’s new domain, to see how she was handling traffic court.
The good news: Judge Moorman’s a pushover for a sob story.
The bad news: The new fines, effective as of January 1st, have skyrocketed. A speeding ticket, which was previously around $500, has shot up to over $800 when everything's toted up.
I’m told that Ms. Moorman’s sympathetic demeanor is a big change from that of former traffic court judge Henry B. Nelson. Nelson presided over traffic court for years, rapidly meting our justice to violators in his gravely voice without even looking for whole cases of defendants at a time. He'd been permanently crippled by a drunk driver, but Nelson could run through 40 or 50 low-level defendants in an hour or two. He did, however, regularly reduce fines and fees for those who showed up to explain themselves, but you'd better have your story edited down to just the facts. Nelson never let people ramble on, and he rarely engaged in friendly chit-chat with the defendants.
Judge Moorman is a genuinely sympathetic person, without being a complete bleeding heart. She's fair, and what more could you ask of a black robe than that?
Cody Bartholomew got a speeding ticket on April 12th and failed to take care of it promptly. Little did he know the price was going to go up — way up. The neglected ticket was sent to court collections, and eventually a bill, a huge bill, arrived in Mr. Bartholomew's mailbox. Still, Mr. Bartholomew didn’t respond, so the DMV suspended his driving privileges. Mr. B was finally moved to act.
“What do you want to do today?” Judge Moorman asked him.
“I’m asking for a fine reduction,” Mr. B answered.
Judge Moorman, arched her impressive brows, took a look at her files and said, “It looks like you have two prior moving violations, but there’s nothing here to, uh… well… I’m trying to figure out my options here.”
The court clerk guided the new judge through the bureaucratic tangles of the system. The justice system would crash if the clerks suddenly disappeared.
Madame Clerk told the judge her options.
Moorman said, “Okay. So you were going 72 in a 55. What I’ll do is lift the failure to pay. But, first, what do you do? How do you support yourself?”
Cody B. was a tall rail of a man in Wrangler jeans and Tony Llama boots.
“I work on a ranch,” he said. “In Willits.”
The judge tapped her chin thoughtfully with her forefinger before saying, “Okay, I’m going to lift the civil assessment of $300. Now, don’t let it go to Failure To Pay, again, okay?”
Cody bowed his head demurely. He'd just gotten a big break.
“So is that what you want to do, then? You’ll have to plead guilty to the speeding to get the deal I’m offering. Is that what you want to do?”
“Do you have a license?”
“No, it was suspended. That’s why I came to court.”
“Well,” Moorman said, “My lifting of the Failure To Pay will cause it to no longer be in a suspended state.”
There’s a mural on the wall as you approach Moorman’s courtroom, way up over the hall where a goddess appears in the clouds blindfolded and robed in pious white muslin, holding a scale and a sword. Just sayin' but there's a kind of proximity you notice.
Moorman said, “These tickets used to be about $500, but as of the first of the year, they’ve gone up to over $800. And that’s without the mandatory fees I have, by law, to add on. Do you understand, and still want to do this?”
Cody Bartholomew said he still wanted to do this.
Serena Maria was next. She got a ticket for talking on a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle. She was also cited for “a child restraint system violation.” It used to be that a child under four years of age or under 40 pounds had to be in such a “system.” Now, the child has to be in the restraint system if the child is under six years or 60 pounds. Serena Maria’s mom was in court and wanted to explain that the child, a two-year-old, had reached down and unlatched the seatbelt holding the car seat.
Serena Maria had other problems, though. She was still making payments on a previous ticket, a rather significant one, Madame Clerk said.
Judge Moorman said, “If you want to plead to the cell phone use I’ll dismiss the child restraint system violation. How do you support yourself?”
“I’m on disability, SSI. I have a one-month-old daughter and a two-year-old son. My license has been suspended for two Failures To Pay, one from ’09 and the other from 2010.”
Madame Clerk added, “She has three other tickets.”
There was another cell phone while driving incident.
The judge said, “Even if I lift the Failure To Pay, you’re still going to have to make steady, consistent payments. I’ll do that for you today, but I’m going to have you come to court in 45 days so I can keep track of you.”
“Can you convert some of this to community service?” Serena Maria wondered.
Judge Moorman obliged Serena Maria; $300 was converted to 30 hours, and she was instructed to make a payment plan on the rest to get her license off suspension.
John Knight received a speeding ticket last April Fool’s Day.
Moorman said, “It looks like you didn’t deal with it and it went to collections. What do you want to do today?”
“I’d like to get the hold lifted on my license,” Knight answered. "I was moving to Sonoma County,” he explained, “and didn’t get my change of address in in time.”
“Okay, I’m going to lift the Failure To Pay and I want you to come back in 30 days with a new license, one with your current address on it. How do you support yourself?”
“I’m a seasonal firefighter. I’m not working now, that’s why I’d like to get the fine reduced.”
Mr. Knight had two fines of $67 each for failure to pay.
Moorman said she couldn’t lift those, but if he came back March 1st with a new license she’d reduce the total fine to $192.50.
John Foster, a dapper gent who looked like he might be in his seventh decade, also got a speeding ticket on April 1st.
"The speedometer was broken," Mr. Foster said. "I was driving my wife’s car that night. The officer said, ‘I believe you, but you need some way to prove it’.”
But the speedometer was working when Mr. Foster went to get it checked out in Santa Rosa. It only malfunctioned intermittently, apparently. Mr. Foster had a photo of his car stopped and his speedometer stuck at 45mph. He also had a work order from a garage in Bakersfield where he’d finally gotten the thing fixed.
“Here’s what I’m going to do, “ Ms. Moorman said after looking over the work order and photo. “Since you’ve been diligent, you got this taken care of, I’m going to dismiss it.”
Mr. Foster said, “Thank you. Listening to these other cases, it seemed to me you were being very reasonable.”
If Mr. Foster had stayed around, he would have seen more reasonableness as Miss Jacqueline Brookstein stepped forward.
Ms. Brookstein, a girl in a hurry, had a speeding ticket with a prior for speeding.
“What do you want to do?”
“I’d like to exchange the payments for community service.”
“How do you support yourself?”
“My parents give me money to go to college.”
“Oh,” Judge Moorman enthused. “Where do you go to college?”
“Humboldt State in Arcata.”
“What year are you in?”
“I’m a junior.”
“And your major?”
“And your grades are good?”
“Okay, I’ll reduce the fine to $192.50, but I have to add the fees by law; I have no choice about that, and convert it to 30 hours community service.”
“Can I do the community service in Arcata?”
“Yes, of course. There’s lots of places in Arcata to do it.” Moorman said what a nice town Arcata was, adding, “But you gotta slow down!”
A very worried-looking young woman, a Ms. Clark, was last up. She had the saddest story of all, and of all the traffic violators seemed most in need of reasonableness.
Ms. Clark had gotten a speeding ticket on her way to visit her mother in Oregon. But she was sure she couldn’t possibly have been going as fast as the officer said because her transmission was acting up and she was “babying it,” she said. “I was behind a truck that was overloaded with a line of cars building up behind me, so when the passing lane opened up, I sped up to get around this truck. I know I wasn’t going that fast. Two years ago, I lost my eight-year-old son who was hit by a vehicle, so I take this very seriously. I have a clean record. I’ve been through a lot, and I’m here today because I don’t really have the money. I’m not working; I stay home with my other child. Everybody’s got circumstances, I know that.”
Moorman said, “The very high rate of speed the officer cited you at is what’s preventing you from going to traffic school. I’m going to recall the case and file it under a different statute so you’ll be eligible for traffic school, then I’m going to reduce your fine. I’m giving you 60 days to complete the traffic school and six months to pay the fine.”
“Thank you,” Ms. Clark said. “Thank you very much.”
Speeding fines are certainly up, no doubt to buck up the state’s faltering financial situation. I wondered how long it would be before the bean counters noted that Mendocino County didn't seem to be kicking back enough fine money to Sacramento.
On Monday, January 3rd, there was a special swearing in ceremony for the new District Attorney, C. David Eyster, in Judge John Behnke’s stately old courtroom, Department E. Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman was on hand to serve as bailiff for the proceeding, and a visiting judge, an old friend of Mr. Eyster’s, The Honorable Trina Burger-Plavin of Sacramento, presided. She had some glowing words about Mr. Eyster’s integrity, ability, his moral compass, and the wisdom of Mendocino County in electing him.
The courtroom was packed, standing room only with the deputy DAs in a long file along the wall and the police chiefs from Ukiah, Willits and Fort Bragg backing up the Sheriff, all wearing their fancy dress uniforms. Everyone was dressed to the nines.
“It looks like a wedding,” one bystander observed.
After the oath, which was long and thorough, DA Eyster thanked everyone and passed out bouquets of roses to the women he said had “mothered” him — including his real mother and sister.
Afterwards, a reception was held in the DA’s suite of offices on the ground floor of the Courthouse. There were sandwiches, cake, and tame punch.
Later, I was sitting in a window at Schat’s bakery across the street from the courthouse with a retired veterinarian.
“There goes the Sheriff and the new DA,” I noted as Allman and Eyster left the courthouse.
Dr. Larry Chaulk glanced up from his vegetarian salad and diagnosed the two men at a glance: “There goes a couple of cardio-vascular emergencies just waiting to happen,” he said, plunging a bifurcated dining instrument into his cholesterol-free repast with the gusto of a man who respects his arteries.
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