By JUAN DE JESÚS BREENE
Unless you have been arrested for being involved in a bar brawl, public urination or driving while intoxicated, you probably did not even know a certain type of court exists in Mexico.
While other countries have traffic court, small claims or other type of lesser-infraction courts, in more and more communities, including in Mexico City, 74 so-called “civic justice” courts exist to deal with the small claims and matters of ordinary community life: noise, animals, vehicle accidents that do not involve physical harm and disputes among neighbors.
These courts are full of those detained by the police for minor infractions for which they can be held for up to 36 hours or released by paying a fine. But basically the public does not use them for their intended purpose of resolving in a peaceful and respectful way the day-to-day conflicts that surface in community interactions: My neighbor has taken over the sidewalk; the pharmacy next to my house plays music on a speaker outside of its store; someone hit me (causing an injury that heals within 15 days or less); someone is organizing an animal fight; part of the neighborhood has become a place for dumping trash; there are unauthorized street sales on sidewalks; someone is setting off fireworks.
The idea is that the individual, with no need for an attorney or fluency in legal jargon, can bring a concern to the court on the approximately 50 infractions that these special courts regulate. The judge is expected to use simple language, give each party the chance to ventilate, look for opportunities for reconciliation, and, if no mutually acceptable resolution can be reached, give a warning, impose community service, impose a fine or have the alleged infractor arrested for 36 hours. Any of these four sanctions will win the perpetrators a police blotter record should the behavior continue.
These courts are also sanctioned to operate itinerantly. For example, a judge may be asked to go to the site of large alcohol roadside checkpoints or to the site of a building where large numbers of squatters are going to be removed.
Mexico still has a long way to go in both use of these courts and their operation.
For example, the optimal situation would be to have separate holding tanks for minors, adults, seniors and intoxicated or drugged offenders, with each of these four categories divided into men and women,for a total of eight types of holding tanks.
But in the four courts I visited, instead of eight, there were only two: one for men and one for women. These courts can process minors as young as 11 years old, and in this day and age it seems inconceivable that a child of 11 might be in a holding tank with adults who are legally declared intoxicated or high on drugs.
The Mexican Supreme Court (SCJN) has actually delivered a verdict that certain aspects of Mexico City’s civic justice law is unconstitutional, such as the detention of minors without legal representation and the speculative nature of presuming intentional guilt in cases of whistling at or catcalling a woman.
Of the four courts I visited, none had a physical space for a hearing, so the procedure basically takes place in the hallway, with the person detained in a secure area and any defense or family essentially in the vestibule.
In the case of an individual or community complaint by 20 or more neighbors, at the oral hearing, there is no courtroom for the hearing to take place as proscribed in the official guidebook touting the advances, which even has drawings showing what these nonexistent courtrooms should look like in Mexico City.
The law also guarantees a free public defender, and unlike in federal courts where the stakes are high and this person must arrive within two hours of their client’s arrest, at this lower level, the judges I met said that the 36-hour detention limit would generally be up by the time a public defender got on scene unless one was already in the building. A private attorney or family member has two hours to arrive to be part of the hearing.
A side note: In researching this column, I found that it was quite difficult to speak with judges, even though the law offers the provision for anyone to have legal orientation from an actual judge. Judges in Mexico are not used to being challenged, so I literally had to show them the law to force them to speak with me. One particular judge, Maria Morena Parades, outright refused to speak to me and further refused to identify herself, in blatant violation of federal law.
I had to go to the office that coordinates these courts to legally ascertain her identity and lodge a complaint: QJC/009/IV-22. There, they were extremely accommodating, and in fact, Maribel Zomaora Granados, the manager of this division, said: “Having only visited four courts, your view may not be complete. I would venture to say close to 40 percent of the cases are brought to these judges as citizen concerns, not by police arrests. Our issue in Mexico City is the lack of resources to furnish these courtrooms the way the law intends. However, I feel we are making progress.”
It should also be noted that these judges’ salaries are quite low as well, between 17,000 and 19,000 pesos a month. Judges on federal and state benches have a substantial salary and benefit package to supposedly circumvent the need to accept bribes.
As courts at the federal and state level have moved from written to oral open court hearings during these past 14 years, these lower-level judges have a good deal of work to do to reach that goal. Some have a small conference room for hearings and others use the judge’s tiny office, overflowing into the hallway.
The most interesting part for me of looking into these courts was to see how they define a “public” hearing. The law states that these proceedings are open to the public, if the initial conciliatory stage of the proceeding is not achieved. At the federal and state levels, the courtrooms were designed for the public to sit in the back after the change from written to oral trials took place in 2008.
At this level, the judges I spoke with said they would never allow anyone from the public to observe, using the justification that protected personal data is involved. However, when challenged as to why any public could not simply be excused or recused during the transmission of any protected personal data, none of the judges could give any valid legal argument.
The whole idea for the change to oral arguments and open proceedings was to instill transparency and accountability to the judicial branch of government, historically riddled with corruption. Quite frankly, even though my sampling was small, the memo on transparency had not seemed to have reached this lowest level of the judiciary.
It is hard to have a true national picture in a country as large as Mexico. The judges I spoke with alluded that the system was more developed in the country’s northern states and that in Mexico City more funding was needed to assure what the law called for, They also said that in southern states, this type of court does not even exist yet.
This is usually a fair regional assessment of Mexico on many issues.