A Beverly Hills attorney sitting as a volunteer judge in Van Nuys spread a little Christmas cheer this week by suspending the fines of dozens of traffic violators, asking them to donate the money to a charity toy drive instead.
But the attorney's high spirits fell somewhat when he learned that the presiding Municipal Court judge is looking into his charity spree as a possible violation of judicial ethics.
The attorney also admitted Tuesday that he had tried unsuccessfully to talk his way out of a speeding ticket on his way to the court.
While playing Santa, attorney Perry C. Wander dismissed arrest warrants against people who had failed to appear in court and suspended fines for people accused of traffic infractions such as driving with expired car registrations and running a stop sign.
Wander said he gave breaks to dozens of people, saving some as much as $230 in fines.
"If you had to be in court, this was the day," one courtroom spectator who asked not to be identified said Monday.
"I suspended all the fines that people owed the court and conditioned their suspension on people buying toys and donating them to the CHP's toy drive. I told them that they were getting a Christmas present," said Wander, 34, who has a general practice in real estate, corporate and business law.
Wander's elderly grandparents, visiting from New York, sat in the courtroom and later reported to a gleeful Wander that those sentenced by him agreed he was the best judge they'd ever seen, Wander said.
Wander even called The Times in hopes of publicizing his actions.
"Everyone was laughing, everyone was saying 'Merry Christmas' and everyone was thanking me," Wander said happily. "I got my bachelor's degree in social work and have always wanted to help people. This was a place where I could get into the spirit of things and help somebody."
But Wander's largess brought no holiday cheer to Larry P. Fidler, presiding judge of the Los Angeles Municipal Court.
Wander's "actions appear to be completely unacceptable," said Fidler, who learned of the incident through calls from court employees. "This court will not stand for that type of behavior. It doesn't matter if it's kindhearted. You cannot dismiss tickets because someone gives to a charity."
"He used very poor judgment," Fidler said.
Wander's speeding ticket came to light by an anonymous source who tipped off reporters. Wander said he told the officer who stopped him: "Look, I'm on my way to sit as a Traffic Court judge. I'm going to court, and I'm going to give the people a break. Come on, give me a break."
Fidler said he will review a tape recording of Wander's morning on the bench to determine whether he should remove Wander from the list of temporary judges or report him to the State Bar of California.
Tape recordings are made of all proceedings involving the 2,000 volunteer, temporary judges who preside over some civil, small claims, traffic and landlord-tenant cases as part of a program to save the county money.
All attend a special training course, said Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Karl W. Jaeger, chairman of a committee that oversees the judges.
"I must assume he's been through our training and must have slept through the ethics course," said Jaeger.
But Wander defended his actions, saying he was within his judicial discretion.
"A judge imposing a sentence can attach reasonable conditions. You can suspend fines, you always have that discretion," said Wander, adding, "I didn't dismiss any drunk driving, anything involved in accidents. Nobody that deserved to have a fine assessed was not fined."
Wander also pointed out that he did not dismiss the cases but merely suspended fines. The infractions would still remain on a person's driving record, he said.
Wander said he did not require contributions as a condition of sentencing but simply reminded defendants that he'd saved them money and made them promise to make donations. He said he gave defendants a CHP phone number for information about the toy drive.
But Fidler said a judge has authority to suspend a sentence only "in the furtherance of justice," and said he does not believe that occurred here.
"You can't suspend a fine for anything but for a proper reason," Fidler said. "I would hope we all would have warm feelings and want to do good for our fellow man, but we can't suspend the law. No judge has that kind of authority."
Wander, who graduated eight years ago from the University of San Fernando Valley College of Law in Van Nuys, said he got the idea for the unusual sentencing when he saw a CHP display for the toy drive while shopping in Century City.
"It's Christmas," he said.