Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Desert sojourn: day 13

I went to the nearby "government center," i.e. the courthouse and jail, to observe a morning in court.

About two dozen people were there to be arraigned, almost all of them on traffic offenses and other misdemeanors, but I didn't know that when I was waiting in the hallway with them all. Almost all of them were either in their twenties or their sixties -- I guess those are the times when you do the worst driving.

When we were let in, a female deputy served as the bailiff and made announcements: No gum chewing. If you want to ask for time to pay your fine, ask while you're before the judge. Interestingly: "Your case is important to you. It's not important to me. It's not my job to listen. It's your job to listen. Don't ask me later what was said." And: "The time to ask for traffic school is when your case is being heard. Some people don't understand that." The judge came in, a man in his late thirties or early forties, while the public defender was making her announcements; no one paid attention to the judge's entrance.

Finally the judge announced a name. No one responded. He said the name again and looked around the courtroom. Nothing. "Bench warrant -- fifty thousand," he said, passing some papers to a clerk. In front of me, a young black man who was sitting with a small group, presumably a family, shook his head in dismay. The judge announced another name. That person also was missing. "Bench warrant -- ten thousand." The young man shook his head again. After that, most of the people on the calendar were present.

There were a few prisoners in orange jumpsuits sitting in a section in the front of the room, by a door that led to holding cells, I suppose. One was a scrawny white woman who sat listlessly, scratching her arm; another was a scrawny Latino; another was a black man with nappy hair. A white prisoner was brought in for a few moments, and then he did something out of line that I didn't see, and the deputy (also female) who was guarding the prisoners hauled him back out the door and scolded him in the hallway for a while; then I didn't see him again.

Fifteen or so misdemeanors were handled; the most interesting ones were a woman in an uncomfortable-looking tweed suit who got busted for speeding and not having a license and who said her husband was overseas in the military, and a beefy young white man who was cited for neglecting the care of an animal. He got a pretty stiff fine, if I recall.

The parade of misdemeanors ended, and a few public defender-represented cases were called. The assistant D.A. was not present at first, and one of the PDs joked that the judge should dismiss the case. The black man was dealt with -- his case was continued. The judge and the DA and another lawyer disappeared to chambers for a conference, and meanwhile the deputies started chatting casually with each other. The bailiff asked the one who was in charge of the prisoners: "You going to start doing yoga with us?" They chatted about vacation spots, and then started talking about the worst fights they'd ever had on duty. The second deputy, whose name turned out to be Courtney, began, "Out in Landers, on Lynn Lane -- you'd know the family I'm talking about..." (pregnant pause) she'd once fought for fifteen minutes with an arrestee and that at one point, when she had him on the ground with one handcuff on, said to him: "I'm gonna call in on my radio. If you move, I'll bash your brains in with my radio!"

And then the major event, the scrawny Latino, who was up for a number of robbery charges including a home-invasion robbery, pled guilty to a bunch of charges and was given a total of eight years and four months in prison. Then a deputy came in and said she had another prisoner out there and gave a name. It took several minutes for them to figure out that this person was supposed to be released to the custody of someone from Panorama Ranch, the drug rehab place a couple blocks from me in JT. "Is there anyone here from Panorama Ranch?" the judge asked, and everyone looked around, and especially at me, since I was one of the few people left in the room by that time. I didn't say anything.

After that, things sort of devolved. They were waiting for something.... The DA disappeared and everyone waited, and had a snack from a bag of candy bars kept by the clerk. Then the judge went out. Finally the court reporter said "Are we done?" and the bailiff said no, they were waiting for the DA to come back so they could handle this last case, and she indicated the only other person still sitting in the audience section aside from me. Then the bailiff looked at me and said "What are you here for?" Just observing, I answered. She didn't seem to think that was out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, a little while later, chilled to the bone by the courtroom's air conditioning and with no sign that anything else was going to happen anytime soon, I left, after being there for over two hours.

Tonight's the full moon, an event I've been anticipating. Since I can't see the moon rise above the horizon from my house, I'll try to drive north a little, away from the mountains just behind me to the south which mark the borders of the national park. However, I did see the almost-full moon set this morning at 5:50 as I was getting ready to go out on my morning walk.

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