FIRE IN THE COURT (Update 2) !!! May 3, 2011

May 3, 2011

by Nicholas James

It seems the Tim Patrick’s letter has ignited a firestorm over in Hammond city court.  Yesterday,  Action17 news Ken Benitez, also interviewed the judge who is responsible for operating the Ward 7 traffic court.

Fast forward to 2:30 on the Actionnews17 video for the start of the judges response to the court overcrowding issue.

Actionnews17 interviews Judge Grace Bennett Gasaway Hammond City Court Judge

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Judge Gassaway starts off with a bit of inappropriate name calling.

… They may have seen an article in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago about an angry visitor to city court…”

Angry,  really?    Angry?    How inappropriate of the judge.

She is the judge for the city of Hammond traffic court.  A court that enforces safety violations by motorist when they operate their vehicle in an unsafe manner.  When it is politely pointed out that her court is violating the City, State and Federal Life Safety codes – life safety codes that have been put in place because of prior disasters – she responds with name calling?

The judge should apologize.

She might have a leg to stand on, if the complaint was frivolous, but as both the mayor and the judge admitted, they have been operating the building beyond its occupancy.  The judge also admitted that the state Fire Marshal had paid her a visit in direct response to Mr. Tim’s letter and directed her to make changes.

It was also inaccurate to claim that Mr. Tim was a ‘visitor’.  As he clearly stated in his letter, he was there because her court had SUMMONED him to appear at that date and time because of a non-moving violation of PUBLIC SAFETY.

When he arrived in her court, he observed that the court, rather than upholding and respecting PUBLIC SAFETY, the court was deliberately overcrowding the building beyond its occupancy limits.

The judge admits in her building that they have an ‘overcrowding’ issue.

“… and it really kind of highlighted the overcrowding problem that we have…”

and that the ‘overcrowding’ issue has been ongoing for a long time.

“… so right now, its been in the works for a long time, we have been working on issues and procedures to help eliminate some of the overcrowding… “

and that until Mr. Tim Patrick’s letter, neither the judge nor the mayor have resolved this issue.  They have been dithering for the past fourteen years.

The judge admits that she will make one, fairly  immediate change to eliminate the overcrowding issue by implementing a new system for handling non-moving violations.

“… so as far as the court system we will be implementing a new criminal procedural system for handling traffic matters so the last few weeks and the within the next couple of months our court staff especially in the criminal division will be working on a brand new system, we are going to a one time appearance system for traffic matters, its done, it’s allowed by law, its already being done in Baton Rouge in city court.  So that’s one thing we are really working on…”

Unfortunately, she did not pledge that they would immediately stop overloading their building by issuing too many subpoenas for a specific time and date. After fourteen years of handling traffic court, she should have a very good idea on how many cases she can process in a given hour.

The judge said:

“… We’ve tried many, many things, over the years, I have been here now 14 years, and we have attempted to work with the city to give us the space that we need and that’s what happened.  We’ve been doing a lot of internal measures to alleviate the overcrowding and this is one more thing we are going to try and we are going to see…”

As a direct result of Mr. Tim Patrick’s letter, the State Fire Marshal inspected her operation and reportedly has directed her to make changes to how she operates her court.

“(6:10) … The fire marshal has visited me last week, and I have a meeting scheduled with the Mayor this week. It looks like maybe we are going to have some pressure from the state to ask the city to finally do what they need to do and that is give us sufficient space….”

The judge seems fixated with the idea that she needs ‘more space’.

What is the purpose of bringing 200 to 750 citizens into court at the same date and time when there is only a single judge available to process the cases?

It is not surprising that 546 citizens refused to show up for court summons on that day.

The Ward 7 traffic court for the City of Hammond needs to better respect the time and health concerns of its citizens.

‘More space’ simply does not fix the problem.

How many citizens need to be sitting around wasting their day in a hot overcrowded courtroom waiting for their ten seconds with the judge?

Would the judge respect this excuse as a reason for a person to have an expired brake tag?

“… We have really worked hard, and we do hope that we can work with the city and try to make some changes…”

Somehow I don’t believe that judge Gassaway would accept this excuse.

So why should the State Fire Marshal.

He has a duty to uphold PUBLIC SAFETY – just as the judge has a duty to uphold PUBLIC SAFETY.

In summary, it is disappointing that officials, such as judge Gassaway, have to be ‘forced’ to ensure the safety of the citizens that fall under her control.

“… that we are now having our hands, our hands are being forced at this time. I don’t know that we have the opportunity to not make changes right now…”

and that judge Gassaway has not been more responsible in fixing this problem in a timely manner.

…and according to my meeting with the (State) Fire Marshal, last week, we are going to be moving in that direction a little quicker than maybe we had thought.”

Let us hope that the City Council and the Mayor take appropriate action to ensure that the court does not remain overcrowded.  ActionNews17 published a second letter by Mr. Tim to the mayor and city council.

Ponchatoula man challenges Hammond over City Court


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