The indignity of it all! First, Kevin Johnson explained, he got a traffic ticket. Then, to settle it, he had to wait in line for what seemed like an eternity.
"This is ridiculous, I had to take the whole day off," said Johnson, 20, who makes a living driving a truck for an auto parts store. "I didn't know how long it would take, whether it would be one hour or four hours."
Johnson's plight--shared by scores of grumbling others Tuesday as they lined the first-floor corridor at the Torrance courthouse--is one that South Bay Municipal Court officials hope to alleviate soon with the opening of a storefront courtroom in Redondo Beach.
Allocation of $300,000
Faced with what they say is a desperate need for more space at the main courthouse to handle the throngs who show up to pay traffic tickets and tend to other legal matters, the officials are negotiating with developers to open a storefront courtroom in Redondo Beach, perhaps in a mini-mall.
The decision to open the courtroom, which would be staffed with a judge and a clerk, came after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this summer allocated $300,000 to the court to construct another courtroom. Among the possibilities was a portable building at the Torrance courthouse.
But since court officials had already decided to open a branch office and assign a clerk to work there as soon as they could afford it, they decided to open the satellite office.
"It appeared to us that with this $300,000, we could kill two birds with one stone," said Chris Crawford, administrator for the South Bay Municipal Court.
Local court officials have lamented the space shortage at the 18-year-old courthouse on Maple Avenue, where both the Municipal and Superior courts are housed. Over the years, the South Bay Judicial District, which includes only the Municipal Courts, has become the third busiest in the county in number of cases handled annually, they said, but the court has largely had to make do with the same amount of space.
Besides inadequate space for its clerical staff, the court has only seven courtrooms for its six judges and two commissioners, the officials said. "In other words, we have more judges than we have space for," said Presiding Judge Josh M. Fredricks.
Fredricks and Crawford said the need for a satellite courtroom is even more pressing because construction of a new South Bay courthouse is not expected until the mid-1990s at the earliest. Torrance had been slated to get county money for a new courthouse earlier, but the funding has been delayed so court facilities could be built in areas such as West Los Angeles where the need is considered to be greater.
"We are queued up behind 12 projects," Crawford said. "In English that means the gears would start grinding in 1995."
Crawford predicted the satellite courtroom could be open within six months, provided negotiations proceed smoothly. It was decided to place the courtroom in Redondo Beach because the city is centrally located among the other densely populated beach cities and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
"It is the place we would be getting the most bang for our bucks," he said.
Crawford declined to identify the possible sites until negotiations are completed. However, he said that one site under consideration is a new mini-mall.
Could Handle Routine Chores
Crawford said criminal cases probably could not be handled at the satellite court because of logistical problems. For instance, many defendants in custody are transported each day from the central jail in downtown Los Angeles to Torrance to face trial or attend a hearing. To take the defendants to a satellite court would probably be impractical.
But Crawford maintains that a clerk and judge stationed at a satellite courtroom could handle a variety of other legal chores, such as traffic or small claims matters. In turn, congestion at the main courthouse would be reduced and people living near the facility would not have to travel as far or wait as long.
"Roughly 70% or 80% of the reason anybody walks into this courthouse is to handle or pay a traffic ticket or in connection with a small claims case," Crawford said.
In recent months, the court has attempted to cut congestion by installing an electronic reader board that flashes information on matters ranging from traffic school to what line visitors should be in.
Additionally, the court has begun accepting credit cards for the payment of traffic tickets and has installed an "express box" just inside the main door of the courthouse.
Among other things, the box allows people to sign up for traffic school, enter pleas to traffic tickets and pay fines--all without waiting in line. Crawford said that about 25 transactions daily are conducted through the box.
Crawford and other court officials hope more people will use it, but old habits apparently die hard. Mourad Hanna, one of the court's security officers, said that although he tells some people how to use the box and avoid waiting in line, they opt for the latter.
"Sometimes they want to see a clerk first, so I say OK," Hanna said. One person who did use the box on Tuesday was Daniel Gordy, a 37-year-old Redondo Beach resident. Gordy was seeking an extension on a ticket citing him for not having a vehicle registered.
"It saved me a lot of time," Gordy said. A few moments later, he added: "My only question is, can I trust it?"