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[whitespace] Traffic, small-claims cases to leave city--Municipal court will host felony cases instead

Sunnyvale--In an effort to create a more efficient county court system, the Sunnyvale Municipal Court will stop hearing small claims and traffic complaints and start hosting felony criminal cases, presiding judge Jack Komar confirmed this week.

Residents who wish to dispute their traffic violations or petty squabbles will now have to travel to a superior court in Palo Alto.

The change of responsibilities, which will take place in January, Komar said, has not been welcome news for all Sunnyvale public safety officers.

Sunnyvale is one of the few municipal courthouses in Santa Clara County that holds its traffic court outside of San Jose. Sunnyvale public safety officers, who are required to be present when a motorist challenges a citation, will now be forced to engage in 30 to 40 minutes of two-way commute time to attend a hearing at the new location. Officers regularly drop by the courthouse while on patrol, and then return to the streets after testifying, Capt. Steve Pigott said.

"It's going to take officers out of our city," Pigott said of the change. "Moving it to Palo Alto is going to take more of our people off the street."

Each Wednesday and Thursday, as many as 20 traffic complaints are heard at the Sunnyvale courthouse, said court facility manager Roberta Stibbard. Not all of the disputes involve Sunnyvale public safety officers; some are from the California Highway Patrol and Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department. Statistics of how many Sunnyvale public safety officers use the facility each year are not compiled, Stibbard said.

But a random look at last Thursday's calendar showed that six of the 15 traffic disputes scheduled required the presence of a Sunnyvale public safety officer.

The fiscal impact the changeover will have on the city and the department remains undetermined, said Sunnyvale Chief of Police Regan Williams.

Williams said the department will wait until Komar makes a formal announcement before studying the issue.

"We wouldn't look at that until the decision was final," Williams said.

Williams conceded the change would increase officer travel time outside of the city, but the trade-off would eventually become a benefit for the department.

"For every change for positive there is also a negative. There are potentially some fiscal impacts--and I think they are going to be positive impacts. But the courts are also trying to consolidate efficiency, to rearrange the calendar."

Komar said the change is part of a countywide attempt to get more felony cases heard to ensure speedy trials. "Instead of having them all go to San Jose, we can have them go to Sunnyvale now, also. The facility is just too small to have criminal, traffic and small claims. I had to move something; what I chose to move was small claims and traffic."

Komar said that although the Sunnyvale public safety officers lose travel time to Palo Alto, they make up the time when testifying in felony criminal cases at the Sunnyvale courthouse. As it stands now, they must drive to the San Jose facility where all central county felonies are heard.

"Overall, the cost could should come close to balancing," Komar predicted.

After voters accepted Proposition 220 in June, the municipal facilities merged with the superior court system to create one level of courts. Proponents claimed the consolidation would make the system more efficient and thereby cost effective. Opponents argued eliminating the low-level municipal court system would alienate the common person who uses the court system.

Komar said the Sunnyvale Municipal Courthouse, which has been in service since 1967, is not the only facility that will experience change. Smaller municipal courthouses, such as the one in Los Gatos, could be on the chopping block altogether. "That is something that is a possibility in the future, yes," Komar said.

As for the imminent future for the Sunnyvale courthouse, city officers would rather it didn't change.

"We would prefer to leave it the way it is," Pigott said.
Justin Berton

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