Tuesday, March 24, 2009 · by Richard Bui
The second week of the new court has been more of the same. Each day, about five or six cases are scheduled to be heard in court, and most of the cases end up being discharged simply because they aren’t bona fide cases. What I mean by this that they are cases that otherwise would not be charged in a regular courtroom at the Hall of Justice. So why are they being sent to the Community Justice Center? It may be a lack of clear guidelines that have been provided to the police officers who are sending the clients and cases there.
One of the initial concerns I had about the court was that it would become a “dragnet” for cases that otherwise would not even be brought at the Hall of Justice. The term “dragnet”, which incidentally was the name of a famous TV show in the 60′s and 70′s, refers to a coordinated campaign or method by police to arresting or rousting people. For example, police rarely bother to cite a person for a crime known as possession of paraphernalia. So if a person possesses a pipe that could be used to inhale or smoke drugs, such as crack, the officer might confiscate the item but not arrest the person found in possession of the pipe. This is because the charge may not be provable in court, often the pipe has been taken by the police in violation of the person’s Fourth Amendment rights, or that it’s too much trouble for the officer to file a report over this type of offense. But now the officer, knowing that the Community Justice Center exists, sends these cases there.
We have had at least one or two of these cases on the court’s calendar every day. If the person shows up, the case is usually discharged. However, in some cases, if the person wants services, they are referred to a social worker. But we make sure that the case is dismissed first.
Other crimes that I’ve seen that fall into this category include loitering, which is difficult to define because what constitutes loitering is often in the eye of the beholder, and obstructing the sidewalk.
There have been a few bright lights in the court of late. There was one case involving petty theft from Sephora. Sephora, as most people know, is a beauty products retailer, known for its reasonably-priced perfumes. For some reason, 80% of the petty thefts that wind up in the Community Justice Center come from Sephora. This could be because they experience more petty thefts or they have a more aggressive approach to detaining persons suspected of shoplifting. Whatever the reason, nearly every theft case we see in the court involves a bottle or two of perfume. It would be interesting to see why this is so.
Anyways, there was a person charged with a theft from Sephora. When a person is suspected of shoplifting, the security guard at the store usually detains that person, and the police are called. The police officer in that case spoke with the person accused and learned that the person had just lost their job. The officer referred the case to the CJC. When I was speaking to my client, we were approached by the officer who made the arrest. The police officer actually came to the client’s court proceeding, because the officer wanted to know how the person was doing and to offer support.
The client was referred to meet with a social worker and to services. The case was put over for a short time, and the case will likely be dismissed when the client returns with a favorable outcome. This is not much different than what happens at 850 Bryant. There, for a person accused of shoplifting on a first offense would have the option of participating in pretrial diversion, which is a program that allows a person to make restitution to the community in the form of public service in exchange for a dismissal of the charge. The person usually has to pay a fee as well. Most people who do pretrial diversion end up never coming back into the criminal justice system. So these types of programs are very successful. But instead of being referred to do community service, in this case, the client was referred to services.
Because we have been in court only several hours a day, I have tried to spend some time meeting with community organizations in the Tenderloin, not necessarily about the new court, but about how our office can help assist their constituents. Many of our clients and cases come from the Tenderloin, and I feel an affinity for many of the residents. I went to law school at U.C. Hastings College of the Law, which is located on McAllister Street, and lived in the neighborhood for many years, even while I was a young public defender in the late 80′s.
There are a lot of great programs in the neighborhood. I visited one program called Youth on A Mission and met a young man named Brian who helps operate the program, which provides a place for homeless individuals to hang out. They show movies and have activities and events for people who live in the neighborhood, including many seniors. Brian explained to meet that they do this to give people something to do during the day and to keep them engaged. I promised to come back sometime and meet some of their staff, who seemed quite dedicated to their mission of befriending people who are in need of a good friend and a helping hand.