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Renovations to Ease Squeeze at San Fernando Courthouse

Times Staff Writer

An end to crowding is in sight for the San Fernando Courthouse’s arraignment court, which recently was cited as a fire hazard because too many people were crammed into the small room.

A courtroom renovation and expansion project underway at the old courthouse will create two new municipal courts with their own courtrooms. One of the new courtrooms will be used to handle traffic arraignments now processed in the overtaxed Division 130, which some lawyers and judges call the busiest courtroom in the county.

“The idea is to alleviate the serious overcrowding and adjudicate matters in a timely fashion,” said Eileen Berger, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles County Municipal Courts. “We will relieve Division 130, and make that building as efficient as it can be.”

Division 130 handles about 250 cases a day, a 40% increase over last year. Defendants in all cases at the San Fernando Courthouse--from minor traffic violations to murders--are arraigned there.

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Although Commissioner Gerald Richardson, who presides over Division 130, arraigns people at a rate of about one per minute, people frequently wait all day to pay a traffic ticket.

The congestion prompted Los Angeles Fire Department inspectors to cite San Fernando Municipal Court officials last month for two fire-code violations--crowding and blocking exit aisles--in the arraignment court. The court was not fined, however, because officials quickly sent people out of the courtroom to wait in the hall until their cases were called.

The courtroom has a legal capacity of 119. As many as 190 are sometimes ordered to show up at 9 a.m. for arraignment, court officials said.

The new courtrooms will be located in space previously occupied by lawyers’ offices and a branch of the Los Angeles County Library. The lawyers relocated and the library moved to a new building in September, 1988, vacating 3,000 square feet.

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Richardson said that moving traffic cases to another courtroom will alleviate much of the pressure on the staff of Division 130. More than 14,000 traffic violators were arraigned in Division 130 between July, 1988, and May, 1989, according to court records.

Berger said court officials are still deciding how they will use the second new courtroom.

Eventually, one court may receive one of the four new judges the county has been authorized by the state to hire. But, initially, both will be staffed by lawyers who volunteer to serve as temporary judges, Berger said.

The remodeling is one part of a general face lift for the old San Fernando Courthouse building, located in the 900 block of First Street directly behind the new courthouse.

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The expansion raises the number of courtrooms in the bungalow-style building from four to six. The building, built in 1953, was the only court facility in San Fernando until the completion of the new building in 1983, Berger said. Three of the original courtrooms are used for misdemeanor trial courts, and the other for small claims and traffic trials.

The renovation project includes improving security and handicapped access, painting and carpeting, Berger said.

Work began at the end of April and is expected to be completed by the end of August at a cost of $50,000, taken from general construction funds, Berger said.

During remodeling, trials have continued in three of the courtrooms. Matters scheduled for the fourth have been sent to a makeshift courtroom in a conference room at the Van Nuys Courthouse, Berger said.

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Times staff writer Philipp Gollner contributed to this story.


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