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Hundreds Of Dollars In Penalties Ruin Drivers' Days In Van Nuys

Jennifer Whalen |
May 24, 2011 | 5:50 p.m. PDT


Liam Fountain is not having a good day. Fountain is fighting his first “driving under the influence” charge at traffic court in Van Nuys. 

The Van Nuys courthouse (Jennifer Whalen)
The Van Nuys courthouse (Jennifer Whalen)

“Jesus Estrada…David Ayuda!” yelled Sheriff’s Deputy Marc Lashley. The room at the Van Nuys traffic courthouse is a packed house. In a room with close to 100 seats, it seems like a cattle call. Deputies call out five people’s names every so often and direct them to sit in the front row and wait their turn to speak to the judge and plead their case.

Fountain, 32, is one of the people called to see the judge in Department 103, which handles mostly DUI’s and hit-and-run cases. Judge Rebecca Omens is presiding. “How do you plead?”

She looks at Fountain over her white wire-rimmed glasses impatiently.

“I plead not guilty, your honor,” Fountain replies.

He was pulled over one month ago in the early morning hours of March 12 after leaving the bar The Casting Office in Universal City.

“I had just left the bar, got in the car with my friend and made a U-turn when I was pulled over,” Fountain complains. “Apparently, it was a legal traffic stop. But, I swear I didn’t know that you couldn’t make a U-turn in a business district.”

Fountain, who is an out-of-work actor, said he only planned on staying at the bar for about an hour but ended up staying for hours drinking with Actor Steven Bauer. Bauer is the man who played, Manny Ribera, Al Pacino’s right hand man in the movie “Scarface.”

When the police pulled him over around 2 a.m. his blood alcohol level was .12. The legal limit is .08 in California.

Fountain’s sentence was a $1,500 fine, 26 Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings and a three-month alcohol awareness program. His license is also suspended until he shows the court proof that he has completed the alcohol awareness program. His sentence may seem harsh to some people for a first offense, but Fountain knows that penalties are stricter nowadays.

Next door, in Department 102, the consequences are just as stiff. In this courtroom, a feisty Judge Nancy S. Gast delivers sentences for lesser violations than in Department 103; mostly “driving without a license” or “running a red light” traffic tickets. Before the court comes to session, Sheriff’s Deputy Rudy Lopez tells the crowd, “forget the Judge Judy episode you’ve seen in the past. This is a courtroom run like no other.”

And indeed, it wasn’t. Gast walked into the courtroom with her sunglasses on her face and a messenger bag still slung across her shoulder.

Sergey Kerakozian, was among the first to feel Gast’s aggressive judging style. Kerakozian, 40, was pulled over in 2008 for an illegal left-turn and was sentenced to 229 hours of community service. None of which he completed.

When the deadline for his community service arrived, he missed his court date. Another court date was issued. He missed that date as well. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest.

“My client was in a really bad place,” argued Kerakozian’s lawyer, Alex Bagarian.

“Mr. Bagarian, being in a bad place does not excuse your client from not appearing at his court dates,” countered Gast. She said that she felt no other option but to sentence Kerakozian to jail time.

Ultimately, Kerakozian’s lawyer persuaded Gast to reduce Kerakozian’s sentence to 10 days of working with Caltrans, and a $500 fine plus penalties that needs to be paid within the next 60 days or she would impose the maximum sentence. The maximum sentence Kerakozian could face is six months of county jail time.

Hearing the portion of Kerakozian’s sentence that mentioned $500 plus penalties might sound slightly confusing unless you frequent traffic courts. These penalties or “penalty assessments” as they are also called, are affixed to a variety of different violations such as a missing taillight to running a red light.

However, even after you've made repairs or adjustments to your car, traffic courts can levy "penalty assessments"--a fancy legal term that means more money out of your pocket.

Put another way, penalty assessments, are sums tacked onto fines as required by government and penal codes of California, Lashley explained.

Under state codes, $13.50 is added for every $10 of your fine; $7 of that sum goes to the state as an assessment, $2 to courthouse construction, $2 for criminal justice facilities, $2 to emergency medical services fund and 50 cents to the automated fingerprint identification fund. Then $1 more is added to help pay for operating the night courts.

That $20 ticket, with the assessments added, it's now $48, plus your repair or adjustment costs for a “fix-it” ticket like a faulty taillight.

However, if you are facing multiple traffic violations when you go to court or have prior traffic violations your penalties might be significantly tougher. Lashley said that if the judge ruled that you have $100 fine plus penalties, that means you will end up paying at least $480 when you get to the cashier’s window.

For example, Kerakozian’s penalties alone are about $675. So, along with his $500 fine this would make for a grand total of $1,175 to be paid by his designated deadline. This proves that fines and penalties can get very high on even minor traffic infractions.

Another example is Israel De Leon, an elderly man, who spoke to Gast through an interpreter. He was pulled over for driving without insurance. De Leon handed his insurance information to the deputy. There was a problem. For some reason, the insurance had a different name on the proof of insurance. It said, “Israel De Leon Gonzalez.” As De Leon tried to explain the name discrepancy Gast notices that De Leon purchased this insurance three days after receiving a ticket for no insurance.

Gast is not amused. She tells De Leon he owes the court $100 plus penalties.

In Department 102, only two cell phone infractions were brought to the judge’s attention. Although, expect this number to increase exponentially within the next month. California law enforcement declared April 2011, Distracted Driver Awareness Month.

This month is dedicated to law enforcement cracking down on motorists using their cell phones while driving. Already, the California Highway Patrol alone is writing more than 10,000 cell phone tickets each month. This month, more than 225 local law enforcement agencies, including the CHP, will be conducting ‘zero tolerance’ enforcement mobilizations. The fine for a first time texting or hand-held cell phone violation is $159, with subsequent tickets costing $279.

With the zero-tolerance enforcement in full effect, the Van Nuys traffic court can expect to see the number of cell phone violators increase and dominate the majority of courtroom activity in the coming months.

Reach Jennifer Whalen here.

Click here for more of our L.A. traffic court coverage.



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