Holding court - Tucson Local Media: Import

Holding court

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Posted: Thursday, November 9, 2006 12:00 am | Updated: 7:52 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

November 8, 2006 - Standing in a town hall elevator, Marana Town Prosecutor Jane Fairall looked down at a filing cabinet worth of files in a pull cart.

"A lot of these people won't show up," she said.

"About half of them won't show up," added Laine Sklar, a law clerk who became the town's assistant prosecutor on Oct. 26. Flipping through files in the courtroom after a morning session, she noted one defendant who "didn't show up again. I guess he doesn't want to take care of his four shoplifting cases."

About 50 of the 131 people on the Oct. 25 docket failed to show for their court dates in Marana - a typical day.

The no-shows wind up in court eventually. Missed court dates turn into arrest warrants, which turn into nights in jail and another court date.

"There is a significant amount of recidivism," Marana Municipal Court Administrator Joe Teta said. "People are more likely to run a stoplight twice than stab or rape someone."

Most people's contact with the Arizona court system bears little resemblance to the high-profile and immaculately-scripted cases of TV's "Law & Order." Most people wind up in municipal court, as thousands do each year in Marana, arguing that they really stopped at the stop sign or that they really meant to pay for the CD stuffed in their pants before exiting Target.

The magistrate courts handle civil and criminal traffic violations and criminal misdemeanors, such as domestic violence and shoplifting. A thief who takes a $200 jacket from Arizona Pavilions' Wal-Mart goes through Marana's court. If that jacket cost more than $250, the crime becomes a felony and is handled by Pima County.

The Marana court grants orders of protections, injunctions against harassment and marriage licenses. Last year, the court issued marriage licenses to 52 couples. Perhaps not all of those marriages work out. The Marana court also issued more than 200 restraining orders the same year.

On Oct. 25, a man begged to have his girlfriend taken off an order of protection, though the order came as a result of the man assaulting the woman at Motel 6 on Ina Road.

"Well, this says you're supposed to stay away from her," Magistrate Jim West told Roy Leyvas, who faced one count of domestic violence.

"But we want to live together, get married," Leyvas whispered, smiling innocently.

"It's kind of hard to get married if you can't have contact," Judge West deadpanned. That got a laugh from a man in the audience, one of the few defendants dressed in a suit and tie for court that day.

The judge explained that Leyvas cannot get the woman's name taken off the order; prosecutors need to hear from her.

"She's here," Leyvas said.

"Oh, she is?" the judge asked, eyebrows raised.

The man's "fianc/e" - a woman who by law he could not go near - sat waiting in the couple's car. Prosecutors called her in and removed her from the order. The judge smirked as the couple legally left the courtroom together.

"That was something," he said under his breath.

The Marana court handles the lesser crimes, but tensions still run high, Court Security Officer Jorge Pules said. He pointed to a stack of gun lockers just inside the court's main entrance.

"We used to just have gun lockers for officers, but a lot of people carry concealed weapons so (the lockers) are for everyone now," Pules explained. "We get a lot of security threats despite being a small, rural court. We've had our fair share of bomb scares."

Pules used to work on the Gila River reservation. Fellow bailiff Harry Smith retired from the Los Angeles Police Department.

Smith watched over the courtroom on Oct. 25. Before letting about a dozen people in for the 9 a.m. session, he gave a speech.

"No hats, no sunglasses," he warned them.

Inside the courtroom, prosecutors called defendants one-by-one to discuss their cases and possible plea deals. Some defendants nodded their heads in understanding while appearing thoroughly confused.

Sensitive conversations that take place in backrooms in larger jurisdictions occur out in the open in smaller courts. One defense attorney took extra care to make sure his client had left before talking about him to the prosecutors. Another seemed less than thrilled about representing "some jackass who threw a rock through someone's window."

Things moved fast, like an express line for plea bargains.

"I'm going guilty," decided one man, whose charges included making threats, possession of drugs and disorderly conduct. By pleading guilty, he paid a small $250 fine, and prosecutors dropped the threats charge.

One defendant requested 30 days to hire a private lawyer. Another signed a form, seeking a public defender. The man lost his job after a DUI and could not afford his own attorney.

The town contracts with a handful of law firms to provide indigent defense, for which Marana paid $50,000 last year. Before Fairall, the town also contracted its prosecutors, a time of inconsistency among lawyers, Judge West said.

The town pays $30 a month per case to probation officer Michael Lowther, who called Marana's court "the prettiest" he had seen.

The court encompasses about 8,300 square feet that connects to the town police department. It's part of the larger, $28 million Marana Town Hall complex that opened last year. It has a spacious clerks room and lobby and two courtrooms, one of which allows the judge to talk with defendants via a television broadcast from the Pima County jail.

In the main courtroom, a giant plasma screen hangs from the wall to play surveillance footage of traffic stops and thefts. Fairall recently used the TV to convict a repeat shoplifter shown clearly on Target video footage stealing a camera.

The judge, administrator and court supervisor all have closed offices. Down the hall from Teta's office is a break room. Just outside the main courtroom are two interview rooms.

Fairall and Sklar have offices on the third floor of Marana's town hall, across the courtyard from the court.

The majority of people on the Oct. 25 docket faced DUI or drug charges. One defendant wore a tie, two wore their U.S. Army fatigue uniforms and another wore a mechanic's uniform. Most wore jeans and t-shirts.

The defendants came from every corner of the region, from South Tucson to Marana, from a teenager with a schoolbook to a gray-bearded man with a cane. One by one, they talked to the judge. The bailiff took thumbprints from some. Others paid fines with their credit cards at a bullet-proof window down a hallway from the courtroom.

Since its inception in 1977 - the year of Marana's incorporation - the court has had four judges. The first, Harry Hanson, worked as a mailman. He had no law degree.

"One never knew what Harry would do," former mayor Ora Mae Harn said.

Judge West came to Marana in 2002. He previously worked in the Pima County Justice Court system.

West replaced Russell Dillow, who had a strained relationship with the town council and barely escaped a vote that would have removed him from the bench. In 2001, an independent audit cited incompetence, poor service and inadequate security in the court. The court administrator at the time, Nancy Reynolds, resigned.

Before that, the court had problems with a bailiff who repeatedly threatened court staff, even pointing a handgun at a prosecutor during a power outage, according to records.

Duane Wilson, a former Pima County deputy, struggled with his temper, according to a performance review. He threatened to take innocent people to jail and even beat up a female judge, according to records.

The town finally fired Wilson in 1999, after Pima County filed charges against him for threatening to shoot a neighbor during a pet dispute. Wilson sued Marana in 2002, but a judge dismissed the case.

Teta arrived in 2001 when the town held court in a former bar on Sanders Road, the past site of several backyard rodeos.

"It was horrible," the administrator said. "We spent about $10,000 to try and make it look like a courtroom."

The building still stands near the intersection with Grier Road. The sign in the parking lot advertises the 4,300 sq. ft. building for rent. The building has had no tenants since the court moved into the new municipal complex in 2005.

The town initially held court in the old town hall across the street from Ora Mae Harn Park. A courtroom consisted of a couple of tables, a handful of chairs and two flags.

George Kline, now 77, served as the town's second magistrate from 1983 to 1994. He began with one part-time clerk and no bailiff.

"The two flags were my only protection," said Kline, who became an accomplished archer in retirement.

When asked if he kept a gun within reach during hearings, Kline remained silent for 10 seconds.

"Does the silence tell you anything?" he asked, adding that he only brought a gun in volatile situations. He once refused to allow a prosecutor to carry a pistol into court, telling the attorney, "I'd pull my gun and shoot first" if the defendant tried something.

Domestic violence cases always made the former judge sweat.

A young pregnant woman one day requested a restraining order against her husband, who beat her up the night before. Two weeks later, she returned, asking Kline to allow her husband back in the home. The judge refused, remembering the woman's swollen lip and battered face.

"Those are the ones that grabbed me the most," Kline said. "In a small town, we didn't have money to help these people."

Staff today keeps two stacks of papers

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