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Indiana traffic court issues dent judiciary's public perception

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Hundreds of cases come before them each week and present issues that may give judges only a few moments to make a decision about a parking or moving violation.

These community-focused courts that handle traffic infractions, ordinance violations and sometimes small claims can be seen as a sort of “People’s Court” that offer litigants a glimpse of the justice process. These settings are often the only experience an individual might have as a litigant in a courtroom.

But in a time when the court process is seen by some as confusing, delay-ridden, and one that only a lawyer can understand, public perception is being clouded even more by recent events in Indiana.

Two central Indiana traffic court judges are under fire for their conduct and practices in their courtrooms, with one Marion Superior judge facing disciplinary charges after sparking statewide legislative changes and criticism from the Indiana Court of Appeals. The other jurist, who serves as a Beech Grove city judge, is being scrutinized for his conduct on and off the bench and how he’s been conducting his court for the past three years.

Some judges and attorneys say the public’s view of the entire judiciary is tarnished by these issues. It becomes even more difficult for the legal community to do its job, they say, when situations like these affect the general confidence people have in the legal system. That concern is amplified now as the state judiciary wants to reform the court system in an effort to reduce redundancy and confusion and make the process less complicated for people.

“Judges have many duties on the bench, but one of those is minding that public perception,” said Greenwood City Judge Lew Gregory, who said he’s heard about the recent examples out of Marion County and Beech Grove. “Whenever that reputation gets dinged, the system suffers and all the courts feel an impact...”

Most recently, Beech Grove City Judge Charles W. Hunter has been in the news for his handling of a woman’s handicapped parking citation in his court. Charity Bryan, who uses a wheelchair, received a ticket in August for parking in a handicapped spot without a placard, and she went to court to contest it on the grounds that the valid placard had simply fallen off her rearview mirror. She said the judge refused to dismiss the ticket, but a local television news team later reporting on the issue reportedly caught Judge Hunter – the 87-year-old attorney and jurist who uses a wheelchair himself – parking in a handicapped spot without a placard displayed and then verbally shrugging it off because he didn’t get a ticket from police.

The city mayor has publicly defended the judge, who he brought out of retirement in 2007 for the creation of the new court, and said while he’s disappointed in the judge’s alleged hypocrisy, he said not everyone will always be happy about the way a judge rules on their case.

Judge Hunter returned a call to Indiana Lawyer and said he regrets the situation and damage to the court’s reputation, but that he didn’t want to go into specifics about this issue or even talk more generally about his handling of pro se litigants or people in his court. He cited some concern about judicial conduct rules prohibiting him from speaking about these issues.

In Marion County, Superior Judge William E. Young faces scrutiny because of his behavior on the bench and the way he runs his courtroom.

A federal lawsuit filed late last year accused the Criminal 13 judge of instituting a policy allowing defendants who come before his court and are found guilty to be fined up to an additional $500 just for challenging their tickets. That suit also detailed how the judge closes proceedings to the public.

That case prompted outrage from the General Assembly. Legislators approved state statute changes, supported by Gov. Mitch Daniels, addressing what happened in Judge Young’s courtroom. Enrolled Act 399 took effect in July and set a series of maximum fines within the $500 limit for moving violations that are Class C infractions, including speeding in regular zones and violations at stop signs and lights. The law now takes into account a person’s history of contesting tickets, and it will allow higher fines depending on a person’s record of unsuccessful attempts on fighting tickets in court.

In addition to the statutory revisions, a disciplinary action was also filed against Judge Young relating to his professional conduct.

In a seven-page charging document issued July 16, the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications formally outlined four misconduct allegations against the judge, who at that point had already been publicly criticized, sued, and even reversed by the state justices for his handling of traffic court cases that had come before him since he took the bench in January 2009.

The commission alleges he “engaged in a practice of imposing substantially higher penalties against traffic court litigants who chose to have trials and lost,” and the commission also alleges that Judge Young “routinely made statements implying that litigants should not demand trials and would be penalized for doing so if they lost.”

The Indiana Supreme Court reversed one of Young’s decisions in June and ordered a new trial in the case of Hollinsworth v. State, No. 49S02-1006-CR-286, pointing specifically to Judge Young’s behavior that violated three judicial conduct canons requiring impartiality, patience, unbiased behavior, and recusal if a judge’s impartiality might be questioned. While that ruling indicated that Judge Young fell short of meeting the conduct standards, it didn’t go into any potential disciplinary matters – that came later in the year. Now, the Marion County judge faces a disciplinary hearing on those accusations in early December. A hearing panel will decide if he committed any misconduct and send a report to the state justices to review for a final decision.

Most recently, the judge has gotten the attention of the Indiana Court of Appeals and been reversed twice because of his conduct and the forms given out to pro se litigants in his court.

In two cases from August, the appellate court found the forms were unhelpful to litigants and should be examined more closely. An Aug. 25 memorandum decision was issued in Uma D. Chaluvadi v. City of Indianapolis, a case involving the appeal of Judge Young’s motion to set aside a default judgment relating to a speeding ticket Uma D. Chaluvadi received in November 2009. A police officer cited her for driving too fast in a school zone, but then crossed out the amount owed and Chaluvadi assumed it was a warning because no fine had been assessed. When she left the country and didn’t contact the court, a default judgment was entered against her and her license was suspended. She asked for the judgment to be set aside, but Judge Young dismissed that the next day.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case, finding that the judge should have allowed the default judgment to be set aside on grounds of Chaluvadi’s excusable neglect because of her initial conclusion about the ticket. While recognizing that she didn’t include a meritorious defense as required, the appellate court also found that the traffic court’s forms for litigants were inadequate.
 

baker-john-g-mug Baker

“We note, however, that the form provided by the trial court for litigants seeking to set aside a default judgment is entirely unhelpful to those litigants, inasmuch as it does not emphasize the need to provide a meritorious defense,” Chief Judge John Baker wrote, referring to the reason the trial judge had denied her motion and that the form only provided a couple of lines for such a defense to be supplied.

The appellate court inferred what the woman’s meritorious defense might be in this situation and found that it would be reason to set aside the default judgment.

Two days after the traffic court condemnation, the court in Michael Butler v. City of Indianapolis even more strongly criticized Judge Young’s court and the forms used in another pro se case involving a truck driver accused of speeding and driving his vehicle in a restricted area. The case brought up similar issues, and the appellate panel addressed the procedural issues that it found most concerning about Judge Young’s court: The inadequate form and a requirement for a self-addressed stamped envelop that Judge Mark Bailey found doesn’t exist according to the Indiana rule listed on the local trial court form.

“We strongly suggest that the trial court update this form for the benefit of future litigants,” he wrote in a footnote.


ogden-paul-mug Ogden

Judge Young did not return messages from Indiana Lawyer seeking comment for this story and could not be reached at his court prior to taking the bench. Attorneys who practice in his court say that litigants who’ve appeared before Judge Young and later called their law offices about the issues have been outraged and shocked by how they were treated. Not much has changed in the past year, they said.

“This all has a traumatic impact on people who just expect to get their day in court, but instead are treated very poorly,” said Indianapolis attorney Paul Ogden, who represented the plaintiffs who sued the traffic court earlier this year. “People who go into that court, this is their first brush with the court system and they came out fearing it. They’re treated rudely, told by court staff they don’t care, that 99 percent of the time the court finds for police. And that if you argue your case and don’t win the fine won’t be $150 but $550.”

Ogden said he’s pleased about the law changes this year, but he hopes more will change and the traffic court will reform how it treats people.

“People are very intimidated by that court,” he said. “That gives a black eye to our entire legal process.”

Judge Gregory says the Johnson County Bar Association and his own court staff have been concerned with those two situations and the impact on the judiciary. The judge said that he tries to always give people as much guidance as he can, but admittedly it can be difficult in a court with that much traffic each day. One day recently, the judge said he had 94 cases set that morning and only a dozen may have attorneys.

“There’s pressure to keep things moving, but you also have to make sure each person leaves with an understanding of what’s happening and their rights in this system,” he said. “It’s a difficult balancing act, and you can lose track of the fact that many of these people may not understand. But we do our best to provide that lubrication for the system and prepare people for what happens in our courtrooms.”•

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  • TRUTH
    The courts are not even allowed to hear cases that don't involve a demonstrable injury directly related to the actions of the defendant. I didn't see one mention about that is this article.
  • driving licences being suspended due to accesive tickets in aperiod of a few days
    I have some concerns regarding some of the same issues on some of my situations i was incarcerated and proved to the court system that i was incarcerated with the prooper paper work and ask the court to either set aside this judgment or dismiss the tickets and i was denied immeditly and even one of the clerks thought it was veryily strange they denied it that quick and didnt look into my situation i feel that this was unfair and i would like this looked into.

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  1. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  2. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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  4. I grew up on a farm and live in the county and it's interesting that the big industrial farmers like Jeff Shoaf don't live next to their industrial operations...

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