Is the Mendocino County justice system out to get Mexicans? Do Mexicans suffer more than their share of unfair treatment at the Mendocino Courthouse or from Mendocino County’s public servants?
To make an official case for bias, not to mention bias’s big brother, overt racism, you’d need a boodle full of statistics showing that Mexicans are charged, prosecuted or sentenced out of all proportion to their numbers in the area’s population.
But getting accurate figures out of official Mendocino County being at least as unlikely as finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so you might settle for two similar cases, one involving a Mexican and one involving a Gringo where the Gringo got off and the Mexican went to jail. Lacking that vividly emblematic example, you might try following a high-profile case against a Mexican which seems to demonstrate overzealous pursuit of a single individual because of his race.
Introducing Mr. Felipe Almendariz of Santa Rosa.
Mr. Almendariz alleges an anti-Mexican prejudice characterizes Mendocino County Courthouse practices because the Courthouse wouldn’t take his money in partial payment of a fine because he’s a Mexican.
It was Tuesday afternoon June 15th when Mr. Almendariz got in line at the Court Collections window in the Mendocino County Courthouse. Accompanying him was Mrs. Almendariz and the couple’s two small children. In line with the Almendariz family was the usual loose congregation of Mendolanders also waiting to pay their fiscal debts to society.
When it was his turn to pay, Mr. Almendariz handed the clerk two baby bottles full of pennies, nickels and dimes. The bottles hadn’t been washed, and many of the coins lay in unappealing jackets of encrusted dry milk.
Dried baby’s milk isn’t buzzard breath, but it’s not perfume either.
Mr. Almendariz explained that he was presenting his curdled coins as another in a series of partial payments of a traffic fine.
The clerk refused to accept payment. She suggested to the Almendariz delegation that they take the bottles to the Savings Bank of Mendocino across the street where private enterprise would convert unwashed coinage to clean paper currency suitable for payment of public debt.
Mr. Almendariz insisted that money is money and that the clerk should accept his payment in whatever form he presented it.
The Court Collections clerk again politely refused payment.
Mr. Almendariz then called an unidentified advisor on his cell phone and, after a brief conversation, asked the clerk to give him her refusal in writing.
The clerk became visibly annoyed. She refused Mr. Almendariz’s request for a written rejection and warned him that she would call for a bailiff and have him physically ejected from the office if he further refused to follow her instructions.
Mr. Almendariz said he wouldn’t get out of her face until the clerk took his payment or gave him a written refusal.
A bailiff soon arrived and explained to Mr. Almendariz that he was creating a disturbance and would have to leave.
Mr. Almendariz decided on an impromptu sit-in. Plopping himself on the floor in his first-in-line position, Mr. Almendariz was soon back on his cell phone to his distant advisor. Mrs. Almendariz and the two bewildered Almendariz children looked on. As did the perplexed bailiff and Mr. Almendariz’s mostly amused fellow fine payers.
Handing his cell phone to the bailiff, Mr. Almendariz asked the bailiff to speak directly to the mysterious authority at the other end of the line. The bailiff agreed, put the cellphone to his year, and commenced reception of a string of high decibel demands and low-intensity threats, all of them basically accusing the bailiff of violating Mr. Almendariz’s civil rights and implying that the bailiff was not only impertinent for daring to threaten Mr. Almendariz with removal from the Collection’s Office, he was probably a Klan-sympathizing, mother-violating gringo sumbitch, too.
After a few moments of silently absorbing this torrent of verbal abuse from a total stranger at the other end of Mr. Almendariz’s cell phone, the bailiff calmly handed the cell phone back to Mr. Almendariz, pointing out to the militant Mr. A that it was getting late and, cell phone advice notwithstanding, he’d have to leave the office.
Mrs. Almendariz and the kids looked on as the patriarch’s sit down protest continued. Fine payers were detoured around the seated Mr. Almendariz to the window. The bailiff patiently looked on, hoping that Mr. Almendariz would abandon his protest before closing time.
When 5 o’clock arrived, Mr. Almendariz was still seated and showed no signs of imminent departure.
The bailiff, after consulting with his boss, decided to arrest Mr. Almendariz for a violation of a government code section which prohibits “interfering with the operation of a business or government.”
Having gotten one cuff around one of Mr. Almendariz’s unprotesting wrists, Mr. Almendariz suddenly decided he’d better leave after all. But it was too late. The bailiff grabbed Mr. Almendariz’s other wrist and cuffed it, quickly handing the prisoner off to another bailiff who hustled the protester off to the County Jail where he was fingerprinted, booked and put in a cell.
Mrs. Almendariz and the kids? After giving Mr. Almendariz’s two baby bottles full of cruddy coins and his car keys and wallet to the missus, they seemed resigned to the patriarch’s stand whatever its consequences, and walked dejectedly out of the Courthouse, bottles in hand.
Three days later Mr. Almendariz was brought back to the Courthouse where he was quickly assigned a public defender and released on his own recognizance.
No one was surprised that Mr. Almendariz wanted a jury trial.
The Almendariz case was duly calendared. The District Attorney’s office had to decide how to handle it. Should it be dropped? Settled? Prosecuted?
Several of the DA’s top prosecutors thought the case should be dropped. They argued that while Mr. Almendariz may have intended to interfere with the operation of the government, he’d only made a minor nuisance of himself. Besides, he was offering legal tender for payment of his fine.
“What’s wrong with paying with a few coins?” argued one prosecutor. “Taking the coins would have been easier than putting the system through this.” “Why doesn’t the collections office have a coin counting machine?” asked another. “No jury will convict anybody for this,” argued a third DA. “Juries don’t like to see the government playing hardball with people like this. I’d be happy to defend the guy!”
Senior Deputy DA Kevin Davenport, however, saw the case as an intentional attempt to annoy the clerks.
“If the coins were clean and wrapped, it’d be one thing,” said Davenport, “but these were cruddy coins with dried milk on them. It’s unreasonable to expect a clerk to accept them like that. It looks like an intentional attempt to annoy or harass the clerk.”
But the majority opinion was that it was unlikely that a jury would convict a fellow citizen offering legal tender to settle a fine.
So Davenport went back to the code books and discovered an obscure Government Code Section, 24353, which states that a government agency “is not required to take payment in coin.”
Armed with his new-found legal weapon, Davenport informed Mr. Almendariz’s public defender that he’d drop the charges if Mr. Almendariz promised not to pull the coin stunt again and would promise to pay the rest of his fine in currency or money orders — a form of District Attorney diversion, in other words, and a reasonable compromise to be sure.
Mr. Almendariz, perhaps sobered by his three day interlude in the County Jail, agreed. He may even have thought he’d made his point, whatever it may have been.
Word filtering back from the Great Outside, has it that soon after he was released from jail, Mr. Almendariz made a point of calling a San Jose radio station with his version of events, portraying the episode as a violation of his civil rights.
There is a general sense of frustration among the area’s Mexican population towards a justice system they perceive as biased against them — Mexicans certainly are a significant percentage of the daily take at the Mendo Courthouse. Hard to say. Local government, like government at all levels, is arrayed more against ordinary citizens of all races than it is against specific ethnicities. But that’s class warfare, not racism, and class warfare doesn’t exist in America because we’re all equal before the law. Right?