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  • Warrant Resolution Court offers hope for clearing legal hurdles

    Jul 19, 2019 | Read More News
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    File: Night CourtAs far as trips to court go, this ranked near the top for Alphonso Valenzuela*. A broad smile spread across his face as he strode down the Pima County Public Service Center's fourth floor breezeway following his turn in Pima County Justice Court's monthly Warrant Resolution Court. 

    Valenzuela received a reprieve on a warrant for failure to appear on charges he stole food from a Tucson-area grocery store.

    "I've never done anything like that before but I'd lost my job and things were tight and I was desperate to feed my grandkids who were staying with us while their mother cleaned up from drugs," he said. "I'm very grateful that the judge understood and gave me more time to deal with everything. Even the prosecutor was helpful and nice. It took only about 40 minutes. I can't help but smile."

    Smiles happen more than one might expect at Warrant Resolution Court, which takes place the second Wednesday of each month, from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at the Public Service Center, 240 N. Stone Ave. Most are smiles of relief, according to Justice Court Deputy Administrator Micci Tilton.

    "So many people walk around with this burden, a warrant, or maybe not even that, a simple license suspension,” Tilton said. “And when they show up and see how simple and quick this is, they relax a bit. Another plus is that Tucson City Court is here too and it makes it really convenient for some folks to resolve matters in both courts.”

    The program exists for those folks who just can't make it to court during regular business hours, making it  particularly convenient for residents of rural parts of Pima County – Sells or Arivaca for example.

    Developed as part of the Pima County Safety and Justice Challenge Grant, and initially funded through the MacArthur Foundation, Warrant Resolution Court helps meet the goal of reducing the County Jail population by allowing people to address minor legal matters without fear of incarceration. The sessions allow people to reinstate driver's licenses, schedule new court dates, create payment plans and have warrants for low-level, nonviolent offenses quashed.

    Confusion over the usage, and meaning, of that last term causes some amusement and frustration among the legal professionals in the room.

    "Pretty often we have to explain 'quash' means ‘to void’ in this context," said Deputy County Attorney Caitlin Watters, who along with paralegals Ashley Anderson and Steven Nazi volunteered for the detail. “I’m happy to help provide this opportunity to people to get their cases worked out.”

    Public Defense Services also sends an attorney to each session to provide counsel on more complicated cases or just answer questions. Prosecutors tend to be busier most evenings, addressing motions, explaining the facts and the position of the Pima County County Attorney's Office on a case.

    “A lot of people with misdemeanor or traffic warrants avoid all contact with the justice system because they figure if they come in they’ll get dragged off to jail,” Deputy Public Defender Per LeRoy said. "Warrant Resolution Court shows them that’s not what happens.”

    File: Hon. Erica CornejoPrecinct 2 Justice of the Peace Erica Cornejo sets the tone and the schedule for the monthly sessions. A Tucson native and University of Arizona Law School graduate, Cornejo focused her work in private practice on dependencies and delinquencies in Pima County Juvenile Court. She saw firsthand the turmoil that incarceration, even overnight, can wreak on families.

    "There are a lot of people who can’t come in to day court," Cornejo said. “If they miss any time at work, then they lose their job and it starts a whole cycle of poverty – they can’t work, so they can’t make rent, so they become homeless and maybe lose custody of their kids. For some people right on the margins, a little help we can give puts them in a better position to avoid all of that.”

    Despite the serious nature of the work and the decorum appropriate to the proceedings, Cornejo's courtroom retains a welcoming, even cordial atmosphere. The Judge plays music during lulls to add an air of serenity to the setting – "Clare de Lune" by Claude Debussy on this given night.

    "I really enjoy this work. I really enjoy being a Justice of the Peace. We have the busiest court in Tucson and we see people constantly,” Cornejo said. “It’s a really huge opportunity to do some really good work and help people. That’s the reason I became a lawyer. Being able to assist this way gives me great joy. Every day I come to work I get to do something really nice for somebody who wasn’t expecting it at all. And that makes me happy.”

    Only a small percentage of Warrant Resolution Court cases actually end up in Cornejo's courtroom or down the hall in front of a Civil Traffic Hearing Officer. Most matters get settled in the Service Center's second-floor Customer Service Lobby where clerks from both Justice Court and Tucson City Court man nearly a dozen windows to serve anywhere from two dozen to more than 100 people who come through the doors. Initial wait times generally run less than seven minutes. Most people show up with an appointment in-hand but Justice Court staff welcome walk-in customers too.

    “We want to dispel the perception that ‘I have a warrant; they’re going to arrest me.’ And it’s the opposite,” Justice Court Supervisor Xavier Verdugo said. “We’re here to help them find a solution and get their case resolved. It’s great when you see the relief on their faces when they leave without those issues hanging over them anymore.”

    The next Warrant Resolution Court is scheduled for August 14. The court provides interpreters upon request. Secure parking is available at the Public Service Center Garage, 38 E. Alameda St., with entry on Grossetta Avenue. For more information, or to book a hearing in advance, visit Pima County Justice Court's homepage or phone 520-724-3171. For Tucson City Court matters, phone 520-791-4216.

    *Alphonso Valenzuela is a pseudonym to protect the man's privacy given pending litigation.