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Holiday Shock: Berkeley Loses Courts to Oakland

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday November 28, 2006

Berkeley’s traffic court is moving to Oakland as of Jan. 1, taking eight jobs and Court Commissioner Jon Rantzman along for the ride. 

Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington and Osha Neumann, an attorney who represents the poor, both said they’re outraged at an action they say will prove costly to the city and its citizens. 

Also headed south is small claims court, the real-life version of the People’s Court where citizens can argue their suits directly with each other if the total amount sought is $7,500 or less.  

Judge Wynne Carvill will remain in Berkeley to handle suits for larger amounts and other non-criminal trials in the Berkeley court facilities at 2120 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. 

Criminal cases had already been moved to Oakland in 2002. 

And starting Friday, all tickets issued for infractions in the city will require appearances at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse at 661 Washington St. in Oakland, said Sweeten. 

The actual move will occur during the holiday lull between Christmas and New Years. 

“We’re trying to manage the courts appropriately with the limited amount of resources available,” said Alameda County Superior Court Executive Officer Pat S. Sweeten. 

“They’re telling us this at the end of November?” declared Worthington. “This has dramatic potential costs to us as a city, because I assume they aren’t going to be covering the costs that will fall on the jurisdictions and the public. 

“On the face of it, it sounds like this will be a very expensive proposition.” 

Osha Neumann, an attorney who represents the indigent and homeless through the East Bay Community Law Center, said the move will be disastrous for his clients, as well as a major burden to the Berkeley Police Department. 

“It’s going to have a really negative impact on Berkeley from all points of view,” he said. 

The change of venue will prove especially hard on the poor, and on the homeless, many of whom aren’t willing leave their shopping carts and dogs, he said. 

“I estimate that 45 percent of the people who make appearances are poor and indigent defendants,” Neumann said. 

Sweeten said she didn’t have specific numbers of citations or cases now heard by the Berkeley court. 

While Sweeten said the move will be convenient to Berkeley residents because parking is more accessible at the Oakland courthouse and BART and bus access is convenient, Neumann said that’s not the case for his clients. 

“Many can’t even afford the fares,” Neumann said. “It was bad enough before, but this will be a major inconvenience.” 

The same will be true for police, he said, and for others who can afford transit fares or drive and pay for parking.  

“Right now, all the police have to do is walk out of the door a few steps from the Public Safety Center to the courthouse. But now they’ll be driving to Oakland, and they’ll have to wait around the courthouse for their appearances,” he said. “There will be a lot of lost time when they could be out on the streets.” 

The officers will also have to take their tickets there to file them, yet another source of lost time, Neumann said. 

Because of the added time and the press of other duties, some officers could wind up missing court appearances, he said. 

Worthington said he was also surprised to hear that tickets issued Friday will reflect the change of venue. “The court appearance location is printed on the tickets,” he said, “so they must have already ordered them before telling us.” 

“I would really like to get some kind of notice of why this is happening, and what kind of options were considered,” he said. 

A representative of Police Chief Douglas Hambleton said late Monday afternoon that Berkeley’s top cop had just learned of the move and wasn’t ready to comment yet. City Manager Phil Kamlarz and Mayor Tom Bates did not return calls from the paper.