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July 19, 2011 > Rough Justice in Fremont Traffic Court

Rough Justice in Fremont Traffic Court

Submitted By Roger Jones

Administration of justice in the Fremont traffic court has undergone a significant change this year. In February a periodic judicial reassignment took place. Traffic Court Commissioner Sue Alexander was reassigned to the Hayward Courthouse and Nancy Lonsdale was installed as Fremont's new Traffic Court Commissioner.

This change has proven to be a real game changer for many motorists cited in Fremont, Newark, and Union City. Many of those taking the time to wait in line to get into traffic court do so in order to receive permission to work off their fine by doing community service work. Of the 350 individuals who appear before Lonsdale each week a small percentage, perhaps fewer than 10 percent, seek community service work.

Lonsdale, in her five months on the bench, however, has seldom commuted a fine to community service work. Employees at the court do not recall processing a community service document stemming from her rulings. A local court supervisor says there seems to be no specific tracking of this number. Commissioner Lonsdale has repeatedly told those pleading guilty or those she has found guilty that in her opinion people do not take seriously the infractions or the penalties if a fine is not imposed.

Other commissioners, however, here and also in Hayward's traffic court regularly offer this option to those who say they have no income or resources. This practice as well as the recent policy of Alameda County's Superior Court to no longer provide a county-wide listing of qualified non-profits for whom a defendant may perform work, is making it increasingly difficult for some to get sufficient numbers of volunteers.

Melissa Ponchard, director of Tri City Volunteers has noticed the reduction in her available work force. She recently has even begun assigning staff to distribute the organization's brochure to those waiting in line for court each morning. Knowing that very few volunteers are being generated by traffic court has her rethinking recruitment efforts. Tri City Volunteers was one of the non-profits on the list of about 60 in Alameda County who had asked to be referred to court ordered volunteers. She was not aware of Lonsdale's policy of not granting the community service option.

Ponchard says she could use 30,000 volunteer hours each year. This translates to a need to recruit 10-20 new short-term volunteers each week. Tri City Volunteers, located on Joseph St. in Fremont, operates a thrift store and serves as a distribution center of free groceries for those in need.

Joanne Paletta, Program Director of League of Volunteers of Newark (LOV) has also noticed a reduction of the number of volunteers but did not know why. She says that LOV could use up to 30 volunteers at a time depending on current activities and has work available on weekends, evenings, as well as during weekdays.

Yvonne Provaznik of Ardenwood East Bay Regional Parks says their available volunteers are found more through word of mouth and work is more targeted to long term volunteers and not so much toward the typically short term court ordered volunteer.

Pastor Greg Roth of Centerville Presbyterian Church on Central Avenue in Fremont uses volunteers to help serve prepared meals to the needy. Just a few volunteers are needed but court ordered volunteers have filled in from time to time.

Brian Higgins of Fremont is a volunteer organizer of trash pickups along trails in the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge. Don Edwards was on the list of qualified non-profits. Volunteers are referred to Higgins who provides bags and maps for volunteer picker-uppers. Most work is performed by court ordered volunteers and the work is seemingly limitless.

Those who use significant numbers of short term volunteers in the Fremont area expressed concern over Alameda County Superior Courts' elimination of the list of non-profits and the Fremont commissioner's policy of not commuting sentences to community service. They are worried about the dwindling labor pool and how to publicize their needs.

Emails and phone calls to Alameda County Superior Court Administrative Offices have not been returned.

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