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Our day in court 

From shoplifting to dogs run amok, the city's quality of life is judged on Kiowa Street

If you're into people-watching, forget the public library, the DMV or even a late night by the Street Fighter II machine at Super Nova Bar and Arcade. Instead, go check out the parade of humanity rolling through an afternoon criminal arraignment docket on the second floor of the city's municipal courthouse. If the new year is anything like 2014, there will be plenty to see.

Inside one of four public courtrooms in the big beige box on East Kiowa Street is where we fine people of Colorado Springs eventually end up if we're ever busted on a (generally) minor violation by the city cops. And 2014 looks to have been a banner year: Through the first three quarters, minor criminal violations in the city were up 29 percent over the first three quarters of 2013, while traffic violations spiked by nearly half. Meanwhile, it was a year of transition for those who carry out justice in the courthouse; nearly every aspect of operations changed because of a new state law.

So, will 2015 be another doozy on the dockets?

"As always," says HayDen Kane, the courthouse's presiding judge and court administrator, "we will handle whatever comes in the door."

On the first day of 2014's final month, what comes in the door of the criminal arraignment courtroom — Division 2, second floor — is an assortment of about 70 unlucky souls representing a true cross-section of Colorado Springs. There's a sprinkling of military fatigues among those sporting a normcore style you might call city court chic: hoodies, some dyed hair, biker T-shirts, belt buckles, tattoos and piercings. Some parents with their kids wear tucked-in button downs, and there's an old man in a suit, but not a tie to be seen.

All these people — your neighbors, co-workers, Facebook friends and strangers alike — are here for the same reason: to understand they've been charged with violating the city code, which might or might not mean jail time.

"It really is the study of the human condition. It is real people with real issues," Kane says about what he calls a quality-of-life court. "Peeing outside downtown — fights — we get all the fights," he says. "We're the ones who fix the broken windows, we're trying to solve the barking dog problems, we're keeping traffic to a mild roar."

For some, it's their animals that caused them a trip to city court. "People take dog tickets very seriously," Kane says. "It's almost like children."

On the afternoon of Dec. 1, those waiting to hear the city's charge against them have names like Wallace, Lopez, White, Reynolds, Morales, Smith, Jones, DeMarco and Cole. They're packed into wooden pews, like at church but with graffiti carved into the backs. These defendants are charged with shoplifting, brawling, destruction of property, trespassing, being "six-point speeders" and letting their pets run amok. When a judge asks one scraggly older gentleman busted for "taking electricity" what that means, he says he'd plugged his phone into someone else's socket.

For many jammed up in the municipal court machine, it's their first time. If convicted, the worst that can happen is 189 days in jail, probation, or a $2,500 fine.

The criminal arraignment judge on this day is Susan Grant. Peering over her glasses from her perch on the bench, she has the look and demeanor of someone who, without her black robe, could be mistaken for a schoolteacher or librarian. Sitting before her are 68 cases of local lives disrupted by an encounter with the cops. Defendants include a 10-year-old boy, a man so old he has trouble walking, and even a minor celebrity in local gambling circles.

Judge Grant is pleasant and patient. What she really wants everyone to know is that if they have no prior convictions, they should consider pleading not guilty and see if they qualify for a government-funded attorney.

That's something of a new phenomenon in Colorado because of a change in state law that came down from Denver last January. The new legislation complicated criminal arraignments in the city's municipal court. Prosecutors used to be able to waive jail time and try to settle a case without the option of seeing if a defendant qualifies for a lawyer. Not anymore.

The new law means a judge has to at least offer an attorney to anyone facing a charge that carries a trip to the slammer. So now, anyone can go downstairs and see if their income level means they don't have to pay for one of the private lawyers in town with whom the city contracts for $150 per case as a public defender. Administrator Kane says less than 1 percent of defendants who can afford to hire a personal lawyer, actually do so.

Practically speaking, this means a lot of criminal cases in an afternoon go like this: You've been charged with this crime, do you want to see if you qualify for an attorney?

Yes.

OK, take this paperwork — some judges call it "homework" — and go downstairs.

Defendants pleading not guilty to a charge that potentially carries jail time can ask to argue their case before a full jury or just one judge. And defendants can act as their own attorneys in these trials, with the power to subpoena witnesses and information. As you might expect, that can make for interesting theater. If someone were keeping a Local Legends of Creative Defense log, it might include the driver who once jokingly or not argued the city should cede jurisdiction to the Federal Aviation Administration since his car was going so fast it became airborne.

"From a legal standpoint, the sovereigns are always very entertaining," Kane says, referring to a loosely organized subculture whose practitioners argue that regular courts and governments lack jurisdiction over them as sovereign citizens.

Of course, if a defendant wants to, he or she can also just plead guilty. And remarkably, a surprising number of defendants do that, without even trying to see a lawyer. Watching it happen can be maddening.

For court administrator Kane, the issue can sometimes be a case study for what he calls "sheeple mentality." He's noticed, for instance, that if the first handful of defendants in a courtroom plead guilty, many others will do the same right after. If the first handful choose to plead not guilty, well, others after them tend to follow suit. And that happens regardless of how hard a judge might try to stop someone from becoming his or her own worst enemy.

On Dec. 1, during the afternoon criminal arraignments, several defendants plead guilty without checking to see if they qualify for a lawyer. The charges range from hanging out in a park after hours to getting caught smoking where it's not allowed.

"Sir," Judge Grant says to a man before launching into several reasons why pleading guilty "right out of the box" isn't his best idea. Doing so, she says, will establish a criminal record, which could make it hard to find a future job or get into college. The man might not be able to obtain certain licenses, like, say, for contracting, she tells him. "Sir," she asks, "do you want to reconsider your plea?"

There is, however, a process for sealing criminal records from city court as long as a defendant stays out of trouble for three years. And on this day, Judge Grant is patient, taking her time to explain all options, regardless of how many times she might have to repeat them. "Don't try to be judge and jury, folks, in your own case," she says in a rare moment addressing the room.

The job of a local judge in this city has gotten harder. The new 2014 law and rising caseloads have meant more work, which has also come with a financial cost. In 2013, Kane says he paid $160,000 for court-appointed attorneys. By the first week of December 2014, he'd already paid out $260,000.

When it comes to the increase in criminal violations and the sharp traffic-violation spike, there are different ways to spin the statistics. Does it mean crime is on the rise, or is there just more aggressive enforcement?

Kane says wildfires in past years took a toll on police who had to protect unoccupied houses from looting, which could have meant less street patrol elsewhere. A new digital citation system that cops are using to drastically cut down on the time it takes them to write a ticket might account for a rise in traffic violations. The number of parking tickets, which you can pay at the front desk, dropped significantly after credit-card readers were installed on city meters.

But anecdotes from criminal proceedings might also indicate something else, namely the economic downturn and a sluggish recovery are having an impact.

"Our shoplifters used to be MP3 players and discs and that kind of stuff," Kane says. "Now it's baby formula and diapers. It's tragic stuff."

If the cops in Colorado Springs bust you for allegedly violating a city ordinance, you'll find yourself in the municipal courthouse within a month. During the arraignment process, you'll check in with a clerk, wait for a judge to call your name and then make your way to a podium to stand there, alone, while dozens of onlookers wait their turn behind you.

Because cell phones are supposed to be off in the courtroom, you're basically the only entertainment in the room. Those who sign up later likely get a thinner audience. Oftentimes the judge will read your charge out loud, and everyone can hear it: harassment, theft, speeding, smoking weed in a car. Sometimes, if you're lucky, the judge might not recite the charge.

On this day, among the nearly 70 people called up before Judge Grant, not a single interaction seems confrontational. The judge takes off her glasses and puts them back on, looking defendants in the eyes, and down at the paperwork.

"That's not how you pronounce my name," hisses a woman with dyed red hair on her way to the podium, but even she shows respect to the judge, and many others seem grateful for Grant's attitude and tone. At one point the judge looks pained when she tells a man who pleads guilty to speeding that his fine will be doubled since it was in a school zone. When a white-haired, stooped old man wearing a gray suit pleads guilty to a 4-point traffic violation with a $500 fine that's been reduced down from a six-point speeder, the judge asks if he'll need extra time to make the payments, and he says yes.

"I can't give you legal advice," the judge gently tells one defendant who seems confused about the process. To another, she recommends he plead the same way to separate violations "for the purposes of negotiation."

"We have a very good teen court," the judge tells parents when they haul their kids up to the stand. "If this is your first brush with the law ... I suggest you plead not guilty." It's likely minors will be eligible for a program that will keep them from bearing the mark of a criminal record. On this day that goes for a 15-year-old in a Western-style shirt and big belt buckle charged with fighting, another teen caught with pot, and that aforementioned 10-year-old, whose charge the judge doesn't specify.

When one young woman pleads guilty to shoplifting, the judge makes sure she understands the consequences. Grant says she could instead plead not guilty and see if she qualifies for an attorney. She pleads guilty anyway, and leaves the courtroom.

Next up is another young woman charged with shoplifting the same amount at the same location. She, too, pleads guilty and gets the same advice.

"What would the attorney do?" the young woman asks, and the judge again says she can't give legal advice. The young woman asks if she pleads guilty whether she can later change her mind and try to get a lawyer. She looks back at the door, indicating that she's worried about her friend, and the judge realizes they're co-defendants.

"She's a big girl. She pled guilty," the judge says. "So, you want to make up your own mind?" The young woman surprisingly pleads guilty, too.

The reason city judges are so patient, Kane says, is because it's just better for everyone involved. He says his courthouse is a "customer-based model," and calls it the most efficient in the state.

The 11 judges in the building work part-time and sit on the bench only two or three days a week. That way, they don't get burned out.

"If you had to sit in that room five days," Kane says, gesturing toward a closed courtroom door, "you'd be nutty as a fruitcake by the end of the week."

  • From shoplifting to dogs run amok, the city's quality of life is judged on Kiowa Street

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