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Juicy Justice

Malibu's courthouse sees its share of cases involving high-profile high jinks

September 08, 2002|DENISE HAMILTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the Malibu Courthouse, they are known as "Goldilocks" cases.

A man or woman scales the wall of a beach-or cliff-side mansion. Strolling into the house, the trespasser mixes up a stiff cocktail. Takes a dip in the pool. Maybe even slips between the sheets for a wee nap.

When caught, these intruders tell startled owners or police in perfectly lucid tones that they live there. That the owner invited them in. Or that they just wanted to look around.

Consider the man who broke into a famous Malibu landmark called "The Castle," built by its eccentric owner to resemble a real fortress.

"He said it was his castle," Commissioner Terry Adamson at the Malibu Courthouse says dryly, "and that he got it as a reward for balancing the national budget. I feel sorry for them. I'm empathetic. On the other hand, it's a potentially dangerous situation because they can act on their delusion."

Indeed. Earlier this year, a man who falsely told a judge he was married to actress Meg Ryan broke into a Malibu home he believed belonged to the actress. A female fan has repeatedly tried to break into Axl Rose's Malibu estate, claiming she was married to the Guns N' Roses rocker. Both were quickly apprehended.

"There aren't a lot of exits here," says Adamson, who has spent 13 years on the bench in the Malibu courthouse. "We've got the highway and the canyon. If people are going to commit crimes here, they'd better think twice."

But if Malibu is a small, geographically isolated town, it is also a world-renowned haven for the rich and famous. Barbra Streisand, David Geffen, Cher, Courtney Love and Madonna are just a handful of celebrities who have called Malibu home.

These residents can't help but inject the small town with a tabloid-ready flavor that is more reminiscent of Tinseltown than Mayberry. For starters, there are the misbehaviors of fans drawn to stars. Then there are the high-profile high jinks of the celebrities themselves. Finally, and much more common, are the crimes of lesser-known residents and those who are just passing through the rugged hillsides or 27 miles of oceanfront.

Whatever their transgressions, those who commit crimes are processed through the Malibu courthouse, whose modest, low-slung exterior gives no hint of the celebrities, playwrights, millionaires, moguls, CEOs and lesser mortals who prowl its halls.

If their transgressions are misdemeanors, defendants usually go up before Adamson. Felonies are handled by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lawrence J. Mira, Malibu's presiding judge since 1987.

Mira, whose jurisdiction encompasses 186 square miles of expensive beachfront, rough canyon and dwindling farmland in Malibu, Topanga Canyon, Calabasas, Hidden Hills and Agoura, is said to have the best--and certainly one of the spiciest--judicial jobs around.

It was Mira who sentenced a tearful and pleading Robert Downey Jr. to three years in prison in 1999 for various drug and parole violations.

Unswayed by the Academy Award-nominated actor's promises, Mira told Downey he was manipulative, had exhausted the court's drug rehabilitation options and posed a threat to the public and himself.

"Is there any question that if this defendant continues to use drugs we're going to be reading his name in an obituary?" Mira said. "We tried rehabilitation, and it simply hasn't worked."

And how many judges got to congratulate rocker Tommy Lee on reconciling with his pneumatic then-wife Pamela Anderson Lee after serving jail time for hitting her?

Mira did so in 1999. The judge also endeared himself to metal fans around the world when he lifted a prohibition against Lee playing in venues that sold alcohol.

But the following year, Lee served five days in Los Angeles County Jail for violating parole by drinking alcohol. Chided Mira: "[If you] do not commit to sobriety, then you're going to come back to this court, and it'll be a very unhappy experience for you."

Mira wields carrots and sticks with equal vigor and must steep himself in pop culture as part of the job. Often his legal relationships with celebrities and their drug problems, sexcapades and assaults unfold over years of court appearances.

Consider the wrangles between Mira and onetime bad boy Charlie Sheen, who first appeared before Mira in the late 1990s when he was convicted of misdemeanor battery after attacking his then-girlfriend. The actor popped up again before Mira when he violated his probation by taking illegal drugs.

But in March 2000, Mira agreed to terminate Sheen's probation 71 days early and wipe the misdemeanor battery conviction off his record, saying that as Michael J. Fox's replacement on ABC's "Spin City," Sheen had "a unique opportunity to be a role model" for youth. "Everyone has their demons, and I believe you're winning the battle, but you haven't won yet. Still, you've made an enormous turnaround in your life and career. You don't need me anymore."

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