Judge dispenses justice in Utah Rainbow country

Deseret Morning News/July 3, 2003
By Angie Welling

Near Lyman Lake, Summit County -- Normally flanked by the American and Utah flags when he takes the bench, U.S. Magistrate Samuel Alba was book-ended by two very different items Wednesday - a rake and a garden hose.

The dress code was different, too. Alba wore a plaid work shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots under his black judicial robe; one defense attorney wore flip flops.

And although he was sitting in a lawn chair behind a folding table in a snowmobile shed, Alba still ran the proceedings much like he would in his own Salt Lake courtroom.

Never mind the propane tanks, Craftsman tool boxes and barbecue grills that surrounded him.

Alba dutifully instructed defendants of their rights, instructed his court clerks to set trial dates and handed down sentences to those who chose to plead guilty.

He even made one defendant remove his baseball cap. Ironic, since another sat in the audience barefoot, waiting for his turn before the judge.

The quasi-courthouse was set up Wednesday and expected to continue today to handle misdemeanor citations handed out at this week's Rainbow Family Gathering. Alba handled some 20 cases in the morning session, mostly simple drug possessions and traffic incidents, and was expected to hear another 50 or so before court adjourned this afternoon.

The idea is to make it more convenient for defendants to take care of their tickets, instead of requiring them to drive 130 miles to Salt Lake's federal courthouse, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dave Schwendiman said.

Similar plans were in place during the 2002 Winter Olympics, Schwendiman said, but they were never needed.

Though they challenged the alleged activities that brought them there in the first place, most members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light said they appreciated only having to trek about 12 miles down from their encampment.

"I suppose it's easier than to trip a bunch of dirty hippies down to Salt Lake," said a 22-year-old camper who goes by the name "Cricket." The judge, however, used the young man's given name when his case reached the top of Wednesday morning's informal docket.

Others, however, wondered if the setup wasn't actually an easy way to encourage people to plead guilty to charges with which they disagree.

Kaya Bohdana pleaded no contest to her charge - transporting people on the hood of her car - and agreed to pay a $100 fine. The 22-year-old massage therapist from Austin, Texas, thought the ticket was unfair but wasn't willing to return to Utah for an August trial in the matter.

"The people writing tickets know it's going to be difficult to come back and fight it," Bohdana said.

Many of those who appeared before Alba Wednesday morning pleaded guilty and received six- to nine-month probationary sentences. Alba waived the typical $1,000 fine and ruled that the convictions can be expunged from the defendants' records if they have no further violations during their probation.

Chief Deputy U.S. District Court Clerk Louise York said though it hasn't been done before in Utah, it isn't too remarkable that Alba would travel nearer the Rainbow Gathering.

"It's not unusual for a magistrate judge to be close to a recreation area," York said, adding that magistrates are stationed in Jackson Hole and near Lake Powell in Page, Ariz.

Utah has part-time magistrates in St. George, Blanding and Vernal to handle cases in those areas.

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