Friday, June 20, 2008
Czuleger Proclaims Weeklong Traffic Court Experiment a Success
‘Send Me More Work,’ Presiding Judge Commands as He and Four Colleagues Tackle Backlog
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
A weeklong experiment designed to cut the backlog of traffic cases in Los Angeles Superior Court by temporarily assigning additional judges to the Metropolitan Courthouse was a great success, Presiding Judge J. Stephen Czuleger said yesterday.
“Now that I know this works, we’re going to be doing this in other areas,” Czuleger said during a media session yesterday at the Hill Street facility.
Czuleger and five colleagues from the court’s civil departments—Supervising Judge Lee S. Edmon, Assistant Supervising Judge Rex Heeseman, and Judges Elizabeth Grimes, Jane L. Johnson, and Ann I. Jones—are spending this week presiding over traffic trials and arraignments, in courtrooms that would otherwise had been dark while the regular bench officers attended Judicial College.
By keeping the courtrooms open, Czuleger estimated, he and his colleagues had heard approximately 2,500 cases and cut the five-to-six-month backlog by three weeks.
Czuleger made the unprecedented temporary assignment because of a “deficit in judicial resources” caused by the state’s financial crisis and 18 bench vacancies within the court.
“If we don’t have the resources to get people in court, that’s unfair to them,” he explained. “We have an obligation to move these cases in a timely manner.”
Within 35 minutes of taking the bench yesterday, Czuleger accepted three guilty pleas, dismissed seven cases and heard two trials. “Send me more work!,” he called from the bench.
Shortly thereafter, 21 more defendants were transferred from another courtroom.
Several of the defendants asked for extensions of time to pay previously imposed fines and fees, which Czuleger granted. Others asked to be released on their own recognizance after pleading not guilty to the charges against them.
Czuleger offered one woman a 90-day payment plan for her fines, which amounted to just under $600, if she pled guilty to the charges against her. The woman said she could not afford to pay, and Czuleger released her on her own recognizance.
Another defendant offered to post the $20 he had as bail. After Czuleger inquired how the man would be able to get home without any money, the man paused, appeared to consider this, and then offered $15. Czuleger also released him.
A third defendant, who claimed to have been unemployed for over six months, asked to have his $200 fine for speeding reduced. Czuleger agreed to reduce the fine to $10.
Within 40 minutes, the courtroom was cleared again.
The city issues 1.7 to 1.8 million tickets per year, Czuleger said, and the traffic courts generate up to a quarter million dollars a day in fines and fees. The Metro courthouse alone brings in about $13 million a month, he added.
While most of the fines he imposed yesterday were less than $50, the fines can become “pretty substantial,” the judge told the assembled media members, because they are practically trebled by the addition of penalties. For example, he explained, the hands-free phone law going into effect on July 1 imposes a $20 ticket for the first violation, but with the addition of penalties, it becomes $90.
“That’s a lot for someone who makes minimum wage,” he said. “It absolutely is a tough system for people who have no money.”
But, while traffic cases generate a huge amount of revenue, Czuleger said, the court does not make any money off of the fines and fees it imposes. About half of fines collected in Los Angeles go to the state, he explained, and the rest to the city and county.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company