Berkeley native Ulysses Ellis never imagined that failing to buckle his safety belt could land him in a legal morass.
But earlier this year when Oakland police stopped his friend’s car and gave Ellis the citation it set off a chain reaction all too common for homeless people like Ellis.
When Ellis didn’t pay the fine he was ordered to traffic court. When he didn’t show up in traffic court, his case went to Alameda County Superior Court. And when he didn’t appear there his citation turned into a warrant.
On Friday, Ellis finally caught a break.
He was one of 85 homeless people to have his warrant and fine dismissed at the inaugural proceeding of the Alameda County Homeless Court.
“Now I can finally move on and be productive,” said Ellis, who volunteers at a homeless drop-in center and works part-time as a security guard.
Instead of ordering homeless people to court for fines they can’t pay, the homeless court comes to the homeless and guarantees those with non-violent, low-level misdemeanors a clean slate if they can show they are cleaning up their act.
The court made its debut Friday at the Champion Guidance Center in Oakland, with Superior Court Judge Gordon Baranco presiding. Baranco was quick to reassure the defendants they had nothing to fear from him.
“This is not some way of rounding people up and taking them to jail,” he said. “No one here is getting arrested today...unless you act up.”
Ellis said many homeless people have a fear of the court system. “We don’t have money to pay fines and you never know if a judge is going to be mad from the last case and take it out on you.”
As dangerous as the streets can be for the homeless, winding up in jail is also perilous, as in the case of Kevin Freeman, a well-known homeless man on Telegraph Avenue, who was murdered by his cellmate last year in Alameda County’s Santa Rita prison after receiving a 30-day sentence for public drunkenness.
The cases that wind up in the homeless court are vetted by public defenders and assistant district attorneys, and recommended for dismissal before they reach Judge Baranco.
Defendants are recommended to the public defender by county homeless service providers, who must show that the defendants are using services and working to solve their problems. The court only accepts non-violent misdemeanors like traffic violations and public drunkenness, and limits defendants to one appearance.
The model was initiated 15 years ago in San Diego and has since taken root in Ventura and Kern counties.
Friday’s session, and the next one scheduled for December at Berkeley’s Trinity Church, are part of a pilot program in Alameda County. A grant from the California Bar Association funded months of planning and policy development, while court officers, including Judge Baranco, Public Defender Diane Bellas and Assistant District Attorney Stuart Hing have agreed to donate their time.
If the program receives permanent funding—about $20,000 a year—Megan Schatz, Coordinator of the Alameda County-wide Homeless Continuum of Care Council, said the court would be in session about every two months at homeless service providers throughout the county.
“This is the best thing I have ever seen for the homeless,” said Stephen Krank, director of the Oakland drop-in center where the session was held. “You can get them clean and sober, but if they have warrants hanging over their head it’s like running into a freight train.”
Not only can outstanding warrants land homeless people in jail, but because of the welfare reform bill signed by President Clinton, they also disqualify them from receiving disability benefits.
Diane Bellas, the county public defender, didn’t have statistics on how many homeless defendants fail to appear for their court date, but said a sizable percentage never show.
“What’s the point if they have no income and can’t pay the fine?” she said.
Steven Binder, the San Diego deputy public defender who designed the first homeless court, said the San Diego homeless court had an attendance rate between 80 and 85 percent. “The court strengthens the service provider and sends a message to the defendant that the county is happy with his progress and doesn’t see him as a criminal.”
Mario Gaspard, who is a regular at the Oakland drop-in center where the court convened Friday, said the sight of a county judge in the center didn’t faze him. “It’s a lot less stressful than facing him at the courthouse,” he said.
Gaspard had several violations cleared Friday, but not everybody was so lucky. Judge Baranco was powerless to dismiss a series of parking tickets amassed by Berkeley resident William Myers because the tickets are under city jurisdiction and so far cities have refused to designate them to the court.
Also because of the high number of cases, several men were left outside the center Friday and told their case might wouldn’t be heard until this week.
Gary Brown, who has a warrant stemming from a charge of drinking in public, said he would definitely be back.
“I don’t want to end up in Santa Rita,” he said. “All I can tell you now is I won’t be jaywalking this weekend.”