Justice served in (basketball) court

Minor cases heard at Naval Academy's makeshift courtroom

January 12, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Sometimes, the charges sound more weighty than they are.

One man is charged with malicious destruction of government property -- he broke into a vending machine "to get some munchies," he told police.

Another man is charged with theft of government property -- he was homeless and cold, and accused of stealing tablecloths to use as blankets.

Welcome to one of the more obscure courtrooms in Maryland. Held in a U.S. Naval Academy sports arena, tourists and transients stand beside midshipmen and sailors to face Judge Jillyn K. Schulze, who sits at a makeshift bench above the baseline of Navy's basketball court.

"You should put that word in quotation marks, because it's not a courtroom -- it's an auditorium," Schulze said, presiding beneath a blue-and-gold banner: "NCAA Final 8 -- 1947, 1964, 1986," as police and witnesses sit above in the fold-down bleacher seats.

Yesterday, police and lawyers kept tripping over the edge of the temporary wooden basketball flooring as they attempted to approach Schulze's "bench."

Three times a year, Schulze travels from her job as a federal magistrate in Greenbelt to spend a day adjudicating the mostly minor and occasionally comical crimes that have occurred at the Naval Academy and the affiliated naval station across the Severn River.

Many of the crimes are like those handled in state courtrooms each day: speeding, minor assault, theft, driving under the influence or drug possession. Others have a distinct naval flavor, such as shoplifting from the academy gift shop or illegally crabbing off the academy sea wall.

Visitors, frustrated by limited parking in downtown Annapolis, often borrow an academy spot. Sometimes academy employees will take a gym bag or food from the kitchen. One man stole a television and told the judge it was to replace one stolen from his mother.

Military bases all over the country have similar oddities of justice, called federal magistrates courts. Some states conduct those court sessions at a central location. For example, crimes at Virginia military bases are handled in Alexandria. In Maryland, crimes committed on federal property are adjudicated in pieced-together courtrooms at the military base. Six other judges in Maryland cover bases such as Andrews Air Force Base, Fort Detrick, and the two bases with the most crimes: Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade.

Felonies are transferred to federal district court, leaving judges like Schulze to trek from their homes every four months to hear tales of tomfoolery.

"It's so different from any other work that I do that it's a nice change," said Schulze, who was assigned to the Naval Academy in 1995. "I mean: crabbing without a license?"

At the Naval Academy, the judicial process begins when one of the 19 Department of Defense police issues a traffic citation or "incident complaint report." They issue about 480 citations a year, about 220 for parking and 190 for traffic violations.

"They could literally go around here and empty a ticket book every day with the parking situation," said Lt. Leslie Burnett, one of the academy's lawyers since 1997.

Burnett is one of three special prosecutors -- called "special assistant U.S. attorneys" or SAUSAs -- who handle the hundreds of cases, most of them settled before they reach Schulze.

"One woman actually broke into tears over a parking ticket," Burnett said.

Yesterday, Schulze went easy on the man who accidentally turned into the Gate 1 academy entrance, panicked, ran over a curb, reversed into the car behind him and fled. Schulze sentenced him to six months' probation, 20 hours of community service and fined him $200; the maximum penalty could have been a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

Jeffrey Henson, accused of smashing a vending machine at the academy dormitory with a wrench to take snacks, refused a court-appointed lawyer and represented himself.

Sitting alone at the defendants' table -- an 8-foot-long folding table -- the former academy employee told the judge his story. "The vending machine took my money and I kicked the machine," he said. "I didn't break it intentionally."

He agreed to plead guilty and received a $675 fine and 40 hours of community service.

At day's end, workers rolled Schulze's bench -- on casters -- to a storage room, making way for the night's basketball game. They'll roll it back in May.

Pub Date: 1/12/99

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