What does espionage have in common with chopping down a Christmas tree from a national forest, or cocaine trafficking while speeding through Yosemite National Park? All are violations of federal law.
Most federal lawbreakers are not bank robbers or alien smugglers, but everyday people who got caught riding a motorcycle off-road without a spark arrester or who ran a stop sign while on a military base.
While judges, magistrates and lawyers wrangle with federal felons in the nearly three dozen courtrooms housed in the massive U.S. District Courthouse on Spring Street, the vast majority of crimes against the government are processed anonymously behind the door of a third-floor courthouse office.
The Los Angeles courthouse has jurisdiction over the federal Central District of California, stretching roughly from San Luis Obispo to Orange County.
The Central Violations Bureau, however, handles citations, or tickets, for so-called petty offenses committed on federal property included in a much larger area, said Janice McDowell, a bureau supervisor.
The National Forest Service and Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Veterans Administration, all branches of the military and about 300 other federal agencies send their citations to Los Angeles from federal property in the San Diego area, desert and Sierra regions of California, plus all of Arizona and parts of Washington.
The bureau’s staff of eight last year processed 56,087 citations and collected $1,066,596 in fines.
McDowell said violators are cited in the same was as drivers stopped for traffic offenses. And, as with traffic tickets, most violators opt to admit their guilt by mailing in the fine--called bail--within seven days of receiving the ticket.
The accused always can have a day in court, of course. McDowell said rangers, military police and other officers who issue the infractions must inform suspects that they can request a court hearing. The ticket then is sent to the Central Violations Bureau, which notifies the defendant of the court date.
Can Beat Government
One of seven magistrates in the Los Angeles courthouse is assigned each Wednesday to hear contested cases. And, although you can’t beat City Hall, you can beat the federal government, if you can persuade the magistrate the ticket was illegitimate.
Two Los Angeles men recently convinced Magistrate James J. Penne to dismiss their infractions for riding all-terrain vehicles without government-approved spark arresters in the Angeles National Forest near Mt. Baldy. The men were cited by a forest ranger but claimed their added-on mufflers were inspected and approved by a county worker at an inspection station at the entrance to a canyon recreation area.
If someone is found guilty at the hearing, the fine is levied by the magistrate and paid to the Central Violations Bureau for forwarding to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Once a court date has been set, it is a good idea to show up. Violators who miss court on traffic offenses can have a hold put on their driver’s license renewal with the state Department of Motor Vehicles until they show up.
On non-traffic cases, the magistrate also has the option of issuing arrest warrants. Magistrate Volney V. Brown did just that in August against 25 people who missed court on their violations for having open campfires, riding motorcycles without spark arresters or setting off fireworks within a national forest.
Those warrants are entered into law enforcement computers and can come back to haunt the miscreant. McDowell mentioned one recent case of a man stopped for a traffic ticket in San Diego who got taken off to jail because of an outstanding warrant stemming from a petty offense he committed in Yosemite.