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Yosemite National Park has its own rustic courthouse

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Yosemite National Park has its own rustic courthouse

Postby ERIC » Sat Aug 04, 2007 9:56 pm

Justice of the pines
Yosemite National Park has its own rustic courthouse and homespun judge.

By John Ellis / The Fresno Bee
08/04/07 04:29:29

YOSEMITE -- Even in this bucolic wonderland, where sheer granite walls frame one of the most stunning views on Earth, justice must be served.

U.S. Magistrate Judge William M. Wunderlich, putting on his robe,
sits on. Wunderlich said while legal issues are very serious, you
need to have a sense of humor on the bench.

After all, tourists run stop signs. Park employees get rowdy. Some people even get busted for "BUI" -- bicycling under the influence of alcohol.

Anywhere outside of Yosemite, which is federal land, such crimes would be handled at the local county courthouse. But when park visitors and employees run afoul of the law, they often find themselves before a bow-tied judge at a tiny federal courthouse tucked away in a remote corner of Yosemite Village.

Visitors who aren't looking for the courthouse may not even see it. Finding the building involves several turns, passing an "Authorized Vehicles Only Past This Point" sign, and then a right turn onto a tiny residential street known as Castle Cliffs Court.

The court -- a quirk of the federal legal system found in just one other national park, Yellowstone -- hears misdemeanor and petty offense crimes committed inside the park and also any criminal case arising from the nearby Stanislaus National Forest.

It's been a Yosemite institution since 1920. But the court is undergoing a review by federal authorities, who will determine if it should stay open. All satellite federal courthouses -- in addition to Yosemite, the federal Eastern District of California has satellite courts in Bakersfield and Redding -- are periodically reviewed to determine if caseloads justify costs.

"It would be devastating to the [National] Park Service if we were to have to close our doors," said William M. Wunderlich, the magistrate judge who has presided here for the past three years.

Court has 243 criminal cases

Last year, the court dealt with 240 arrests. Already this year, the number is 172. Wunderlich's caseload now includes 243 criminal cases and 589 civil cases dealing with prisoner rights issues around the district that are assigned to federal magistrates.

These are not hardened criminals, though a few handcuffed prisoners in orange jumpsuits have made their initial appearance before Wunderlich.

Once inside the courthouse, they might meet Coarsegold resident Ray Kern. The genial and low-key court security officer puts people through the metal detector, then escorts them the two steps to the courtroom, a place that feels a lot like a municipal court.

At the prosecutor's table is not an attorney, but a National Park Service ranger with some legal training. During the busy summer season, the public defender is an attorney on a short-term working vacation, usually on loan from a federal jurisdiction in a far-off state. Other times, one drives up periodically from Fresno.

Overseeing the scene is Wunderlich, a fast-talking dispenser of homespun justice. He came to Yosemite after long stints as a Superior Court judge in Monterey County and as a state appeal court justice in San Jose.

The scene made federal defender Rita Boswell feel lost during her first week of a two-month stint. Boswell, a California native, has worked for two years in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., and only started working in the Yosemite court this week.

Her first instinct when she started, she said, was to enter a not-guilty plea for her clients and start filing motions.

But instead of representing clients facing 10-year mandatory minimum sentences, Boswell instead has found herself representing people facing far lesser crimes, like the woman charged with "destruction of park resources" after she illegally tied up her horse, which began chewing on a tree.

"It's surreal, to be honest," she said.

It can be equally surreal for some of the accused, who find themselves facing a misdemeanor for something as minor as a speeding ticket. Wunderlich said many speeders get wide-eyed when he tells them they face a possible maximum sentence of six months in jail or a $5,000 fine. Nobody facing a traffic infraction gets that sentence, he said, but he must tell them the maximum possible sentence.

In this, Yosemite is no different than any other lands under federal jurisdiction, including other national parks such as Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

But lawbreakers in Sequoia or Kings Canyon must come down to Fresno for their hearings.

Tuesday is court's busiest day

Yosemite got a courthouse, Wunderlich said, because it once was far removed from any population center. It also didn't hurt that it was enormously popular -- a favorite of former President Theodore Roosevelt and others -- and remains so today.

The court also has a colorful past.

Grady Bryant, a court security officer and former longtime ranger, recalled that former magistrate Judge Donald W. Pitts didn't have security officers, but he did have a Rottweiler named Bailiff.

Bryant also recalled prisoners being walked in a chain gang from the park's jail to the courthouse.

These days, the courthouse is much more modern, but still has a rustic, small-town feel.

Wunderlich, for instance, commutes by foot from his nearby 2,100-square-foot home, which he rents from the U.S. government for $1,100 a month.

Bryant, who seems to be the courthouse's unofficial historian, keeps a photo album on hand showing bears and deer wandering around the building. The front walk has scuff marks from deer hooves. Deer are drawn to the courthouse pavement to lick the remains of salt thrown down each winter to melt snow and ice.

Most of the courtroom's light comes from a triangular window above the bench. Below it sits Wunderlich. To his left is the jury box. In more than 20 years, nobody can recall it ever being used by a jury.

Juries aren't needed, because those cited for the most common misdemeanors in the park -- punishable by up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine -- aren't permitted jury trials under federal law. Those misdemeanors include speeding, driving under the influence and public intoxication. If they plead not guilty, they get a bench trial.

But if a jury trial was scheduled at the Yosemite courthouse, the jury pool would be drawn from those living inside the park -- mostly rangers and their spouses. Since rangers provide law enforcement at the park, picking an impartial jury could be problematic.

"No defense attorney in his right mind would agree to that," Wunderlich said.

Tuesday typically is Wunderlich's busiest day of the week, when the court hears a long list of petty offenses and, occasionally, the early stages of a felony offense. Felony cases eventually are moved to the federal courthouse in Fresno.

This past Tuesday, he lectured Midpines resident Kyle Williams, 20, who had pleaded guilty to drunken driving. In his plea agreement, Williams acknowledged that his blood-alcohol level was 0.16 -- twice the legal limit.

"That's scary for me, for a 20-year-old to be at that level of intoxication," Wunderlich said.

Because Williams was a first-time offender, Boswell, the federal defender, asked Wunderlich not to report the offense to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Wunderlich declined.

"Mr. Williams, I'm sure you're a nice guy, but this needs to be on your record," he said.

Moments later, Wunderlich showed a kinder side in dispensing justice.

Jose Sosa, who lives in Southern California, had been charged last summer with speeding and driving on a suspended license.

Wunderlich earlier had said he would cut Sosa's fine in half if he paid the first half, honored his probation and completed 70 hours of community service. He did all three.

"Congratulations, Mr. Sosa, you're one of my success stories," Wunderlich said. "I wish I had more."

Sosa had driven all the way from Monterey Park that morning for his final hearing, and planned to take in some of the park before returning home.

He said he liked the court's atmosphere and the fact that Wunderlich took time to listen. "In the L.A. courts, there are so many people that they don't want to hear your story," he said.

Though that small-town feel gives the court its charm, it is still a courtroom that hands down often-unpopular decisions. Some attorneys gripe about overzealous rangers who hassle tourists when they drink too much or forget to store their food properly.

Unpopular maybe, but the courthouse is still needed, judges and many attorneys say.

"I think that it has served a function and need that has continued to exist," said U.S. District Court Judge Oliver W. Wanger, who works in the federal courthouse in Fresno. "If there were not enough cases to justify a full-time magistrate judge, we wouldn't have it."
The reporter can be reached at jellis@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6320.
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Postby SteveB » Mon Aug 13, 2007 12:59 pm

Great story, Eric! Thanks for posting it. I never knew there was a courthouse in the Valley!
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Postby jdub » Mon Aug 13, 2007 1:40 pm

They also have a very rustic jail, as I learned the hard way.

Me and a friend of mine had to spend the night there one time a while ago.
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