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A hush prevails as the judge enters his courtroom and takes position behind the bench, which, truth be told, is really just a worn wooden podium.
He greets the ragtag group of 50 or so clients seated shoulder to shoulder in the cramped gallery before him, which might be more accurately described as several arranged rows of plastic folding chairs.
“We have a beautiful warm sunny day outside which means it’s going to get very hot in here very quickly,” the judge says. The single oscillating fan in the corner of the room betrays no indignation. “So we’re going to try and move through the calendar as quickly as we can. When your name is called, please step forward and we will take care of your case. Let’s begin.”
And with that, this session of homeless court is underway. Attorney Erica Pascal rises from her seat at the defense table, approaches the bench and calls her first client: Theresa Murphy. She emerges from the crowd, with hesitation.
She is on her way back up, Pascal says. “She is a holistic healing practitioner. She practiced for 5 to 6 years and hopes to go back. She currently has one open case and one further proceeding.”
The judge motions to the district and city attorneys seated to his right. “Is there a people’s motion as to the open case?”
“There is, your honor. People’s motion to dismiss.”
And so it is. With the stroke of a pen, Judge Robert Trentacosta dismisses the case and grants Murphy a clean slate. “Congratulations,” he says with a handshake. As if she hadn’t expected to hear the words, her tense shoulders fall back, and she beams. For the next hour and a half, sighs of relief will be the order of the day in this makeshift courtroom at downtown’s St. Vincent de Paul Village.
Once a month, San Diego’s homeless court comes to session to give the city’s most vulnerable another chance. One by one, participants present themselves to Judge Trentacosta in their cleanest, most court-appropriate clothes, and in the span of less than two hours are relieved of the burden of hundreds of citations, misdemeanor charges and bench warrants they’ve racked up over the course of years, sometimes without knowing. In exchange, they’ve started addressing their personal problems.
Though the gravity of the charges ranges, a majority reflect the unavoidable challenges accompanying homelessness — citations for illegal lodging, public urination, or boarding trolleys without fare. They’re citations that many of the city’s homeless, fearing court appearances and lacking the money to pay administrative fees or ticket fines, simply ignore.
But their inaction comes at a cost. Minor infractions for which they fail to appear in court turn into bench warrants for their arrest, and the knowledge of those warrants leads many to fear and flee from police.
Steve Binder, a San Diego County public defender, established the homeless court 10 years ago after repeated frustration over watching people’s legal problems snowball and disintegrate their chances for future housing or job prospects.
“These offenses weigh heavily on them,” Binder said. Some clients had as many as 150 open cases on their records.
In some ways, the court is a direct response to a legal system not set up to handle the nuances of homelessness — a system that incrementally increases punishment for each unaddressed offense and only drives homeless people further from resolving their legal troubles.
“In some respects the law can be a barrier to public safety and to finding solutions,” Binder said. “In these situations, justice wasn’t being served because people weren’t taking care of their cases.”
San Diego’s homeless court grew out of the Veterans Village of San Diego’s 1989 Stand Down event, which for 20 years has provided services to the city’s homeless veterans. It was then that organizers first realized the need for targeted legal services for the homeless, said Charles Lyles, the organization’s community projects coordinator.
In 1999, San Diego’s became the nation’s first homeless court, and since then, 17 others have popped up in California, and 20 more across the country.
The court was designed to give the city’s homeless, as well as recovering alcoholics, substance abusers and the mentally ill the opportunity to wipe away open and pending citations and warrants — the court does not handle felonies — in exchange for having enrolled in rehabilitation and treatment programs or taken steps to find housing or jobs.
Fees associated with a single citation can easily disrupt the delicate financial balance that recovering homeless people navigate as they get back on their feet while paying rent or trying to qualify for government benefits.
“There’s this misconception about the court,” said Adam Garson, a pro bono attorney from the law firm DLA Piper, “that people just sign up for it to get things thrown out. But these people have worked really hard to be here.”
Homeless, mental health, and substance abuse service providers refer their clients to the homeless court through the public defender’s office and compile much of the documentation attorneys need to make their cases. Prosecutors and pro bono defense attorneys settle on an agreement for each case before a hearing, and the clients meet their attorneys who tell them what to expect. No one is ever taken into custody for outstanding cases or for surrendering themselves to the court.
On Wednesday, Leonard Ortega, 49, towered tall over Pascal as she presented his case to Judge Trentacosta. A $203 traffic ticket that he could not afford to pay would end his chances of using his class-A driver’s license to accept a job offer as a truck driver. As he stood before the judge, the nervousness was in his hands.
“He has been in a residential treatment program and has 12 years of sobriety,” Pascal said.
Trentacosta cocked his eyebrows in approval, and the corners of Ortega’s mouth curled irresistibly upward.
“The open matter is dismissed upon by motion of the people. It’s all taken care of,” Trentacosta said.
Outside the courtroom, Ortega marveled at the outcome. “That’s never happened before,” he said. “I’ve had experiences with the criminal justice system since I was 9 years old. They never, ever, ever, said they were going to dismiss. It’s always, ‘We’re going to prosecute.’”
“When they first told me they wanted to dismiss, I told them, ‘You got the wrong guy,’” he said. “I’ll make at least a $1,000 a week after taxes with my job. I’m moving on up, like the Jeffersons.”
Those are the types of stories Trentacosta likes to hear.
“We have an adversarial system of justice,” he said. “But homeless court is more of a collaborative court. Everybody — the prosecution, the defense, the providers — everybody works together because everybody understands that there’s a desired result to restore some dignity, and if a person invests themselves as these people have, they’ve earned the right to do it, and we as a society have done a good thing.”
The court has been lauded for slashing criminal recidivism among participants, Trentacosta said.
The challenge for homeless people like Ronald Akins is avoiding future run-ins with the law when much of what he must do each day is illegal.
On Wednesday, he stood before Judge Trentacosta with a rheumy eye — his better one before it went blind after meeting debris — and a monthly trolley pass in hand. He hoped to have two citations with pending court dates dismissed. On Aug. 11, he was ticketed for riding the Trolley’s Orange Line without having paid the fare. Three hours later, on the return trip, he was cited again.
Accompanied by his mental health provider after the court dates were cleared, he said, he was headed to the Salvation Army for dinner. Then, to bed.
He sleeps on 16th Street and Broadway Avenue, “across from the police station, where it’s safe,” and where he’s occasionally received tickets for illegal lodging. He’s served custody time to have those cleared.
No need to go to jail for these two, he said. And asked about future tickets for lodging, he said, “I just have to try to stay out of trouble.”
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