California judge who mocked blind man emblematic of failed traffic court system

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Guardian  – By Sam Levin

When Prentiss Mayo showed up to traffic court on 19 October 2015, he tried to explain that he was blind and that his impairment affected his case.

Judge Taylor Culver wasn’t having it.

“I don’t believe any of it,” Culver said repeatedly in his Oakland, California, courtroom before he ordered Mayo to pay a $221 fine on fare evasion charges. The case was quickly closed, but the judge’s dismissive remarks about Mayo’s blindness didn’t stop.

“Sit over there,” Culver said.

“Sit over where?” Mayo replied, confused.

Culver laughed. “Man, I like this. You really got style. It’s all lies. Sit over there on the right-hand side of the courtroom.”

Mayo, 34, was stunned to hear the mockery and asked again where he should go.

“You’ll find it,” Culver replied.

“I’ve never been so embarrassed in my whole life,” Mayo said in a recent interview, explaining that he lost his vision after a stabbing attack. “It just really felt like he denied my whole experience.”

This week, Culver, who some attorneys say is one of the cruelest traffic judges in the state, was accused of “willful misconduct” by the California commission on judicial performance. The case offers a rare window into the inner workings of the controversial traffic courts that have burdened low-income people with insurmountable debts for minor offenses.

The charges – which chronicle Culver’s “rude” and “harsh” treatment of defendants and “abuse of authority” – come at a time when advocates across the country have increasingly raised alarms about the way police agencies and courts try to collect revenue from marginalized communities through exorbitant fines and fees for low-level citations.

In Ferguson, Missouri, where reports on the mistreatment of black residents sparked national protests, municipal leaders have faced widespread criticism for issuing tens of thousands of warrants for minor offenses, trapping poor people in cycles of debt and poverty and disproportionately targeting minorities. Civil rights lawyers say the problem is just as bad in liberal California and that the Culver charges illustrate how traffic judges have wide discretion to abuse vulnerable defendants and order fines that can destroy people’s lives.

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