Bill Boyarsky
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Courts broke but owed $7.5 billion

One of the best examples of why government doesn’t work is the $7.5 billion in fines and penalties for traffic and criminal offenses that remain uncollected while courtrooms are closed and employees fired.

This hasn’t gotten much notice except for stories by California Watch, the non-profit investigative news gathering organization, and the Los Angeles Metropolitan News-Enterprise, which covers legal affairs.

I heard about it from Lloyd W. Pellman, former Los Angeles county counsel who is now in private practice. Pellman and another lawyer, David Farrar, have asked the Judicial Council, policy body for the state courts, to do something about collecting the money and using it for financially strapped trial courts around the state. Farrar’s firm collects debts for government agencies. Pellman’s firm, Nossaman LLP, represents Farrar. As the county’s chief legal officer from 1998 to 2004, Pellman knows plenty about county and court financing.

In a letter to the Judicial Council, Pellman warned that the closing of courts is depriving California access to the justice system unless they can afford to pay lawyers who would finance, through fees, expenses usually paid by government. “If the current trend continues, this state is headed for a two-tier system of justice,” Pellman wrote. “Only those whose attorneys can afford to underwrite the costs of court reporters and increased filing fees or who can afford to pay such expenses themselves will be able to proceed with litigation with a record for appeal. “I don’t want to see that happen in my personal or professional lifetime.”

In other words, unless you can afford a well connected lawyer with clout, don’t hold your breath until your divorce, civil suit or criminal prosecution is decided.

Pellman and Farrar urged the Judicial Council to use some muscle and get the courts to wring the money from the scofflaws. The money would be split between cities and counties, which make the arrests, and the courts but under the Pellman-Farrar proposal, the courts would get 40 percent of it.

Other lawyers familiar with the system say the money is hard to collect. Much of it is owed by poor people. It’s all but impossible to get money from many of them and costly to jail the non-payers.

I can see the obstacles. In addition, the courts, run by judges and other lawyers, make everything complicated and hard to change. You ought to read the procedures for dividing the fines between the various levels of government.

But courtrooms are being closed in downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, Pomona, the Antelope Valley, San Fernando, Inglewood and other places in Los Angeles County. With $7.5 billion out there uncollected, these legal minds and their political allies ought to be able to figure out a solution.


More by Bill Boyarsky
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Courts broke but owed $7.5 billion
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