At the VA Hospital, Patients Often Wind Up in Court
One day in February, Salvatore Pelegrino, a cancer patient at the Veterans Administration hospital in Miami, was peeling an apple at a table on a patio outside the hospital when a police officer approached and confiscated his knife. Pelegrino, who uses a walker and breathes with the help of an oxygen tank, was handcuffed and detained at a facility on the hospital campus, then issued a ticket for carrying a knife with a blade longer than 3 inches.
“How would you like to deal with [the ticket], sir?” the judge asked Pelegrino in court, in April.
“What I’d like is if you could throw it out,” Pelegrino said. “Although I’m guilty of having a knife,” he added, “I’m innocent because the only thing I use it for is peel apples.” Pelegrino’s teeth are so sensitive, he explained, that the only way for him to eat fruit is peeled and thinly sliced. He’d been bringing the knife to the hospital for years without incident, he said. Besides, he insisted, another police officer there had even suggested that carrying the knife wasn’t a problem as long as he kept it “down and low.”
The case wouldn’t be thrown out, but the prosecutors in Pelegrino’s case seemed willing to work with him. They would waive court costs and any fines associated with the ticket. All he would have to pay was a $30 processing fee. Pelegrino could even arrange with the officer to get his knife back next time he went to the VA. “Here’s the deal,” the judge said. you can’t bring that in knife there. You’re going to have to bring sliced apples.” Pelegrino didn’t think he would get his knife back.
The Bottom of the Barrel
Once or twice a month, minor infractions fill out the mix of drug smuggling and insider trading cases in federal courthouses around the country. This is the so-called ‘ticket calendar,’ a venue for the humblest criminal proceedings in the federal system.
The docket takes on a local character for each court depending on the federal property nearby — under-sized fish and maritime pot-smoking in Biscayne National Park, disorderly conduct in immigration courts, reckless driving on big army bases. In Miami, a good portion of what ends up on the ticket calendar begins just a few blocks away at the Bruce Carter VA Medical Center on 16th Street.
There are patients accused of stealing their lunches from the cafeteria (“Willful destruction, damage or removal of Government property”) and of smoking cigarettes in their hospital beds (“Failure to comply with signs of a directive and restrictive nature”). Spitting carries a penalty of $25; bringing alcohol on the property, $125.
On the day Pelegrino’s case was heard, 18 federal law enforcement officers filled the seats on one side of the courtroom. Many are veterans themselves, from the VA’s own police force. On the other side sat a handful of veterans and relatives, a VA nurse in scrubs, and people there for tickets issued at the Social Security Administration or the post office.
Because there’s seldom a risk of jail time for cases on the ticket docket, most people appear without court-appointed attorneys. They represent themselves, nervous and befuddled by the process even as they try their best legalese.
Malcolm Watson strode to the lectern and launched into his defense as soon as the judge greeted him. “Your honor, if you’ll just look at, review the citation,” he began.
“Well, can you wait one minute please?” Magistrate Judge Chris McAliley said. “There’s some things I have to do.”
Parking tickets are the most common tickets issued at the VA, and Watson was accused of parking in a marked no-parking area.
“Stop, stop, listen — do you understand that that’s what they say you did?” McAliley asked.
“Well,” Watson said, “that’s what’s misleading about it.”
“Hold on, hold on, listen,” the judge said.
The cases take a few minutes each, first cases that can be resolved with a dismissal or a guilty plea, and then, in trial for people who contest their charges.
The US Attorney’s Office declined requests for an interview, but dismissals were common for a variety of reasons over seven months of VA ticket calendars reviewed for this story. Sometimes the officer who wrote the ticket didn’t show up, or there wasn’t enough information on the ticket to show probable cause. Sometimes, as appeared to be the case with Steven Carroll, prosecutors look at the circumstances — Carroll was on his way to a doctor’s appointment — and decide to give someone a pass.
“It’s your lucky day, the ticket is dismissed,” Judge McAliley told Carroll as he turned to go. “Be careful with the parking, though.”
“I believe the VA needs to change their schedule,” Carroll said, turning back; veterans don’t want to risk missing their appointments because they couldn’t find parking, he explained.
“You know, I hear that over and over,” McAliley said.
“They’re even blocking people where they could park, they’re putting up cones,” Carroll said. He held up blown-up color photos of cars parked where he’d been ticketed, to illustrate the problem.
“No, I, I believe it,” McAliley said. “It’s just — I’m not in charge of parking at the VA. That’s the challenge.” Laughter spread through the court.
“I was scheduled, to be here, for an appointment at a certain time, and there’s no place for me to park,” Carroll explained later. “I’m not blocking any traffic, I’m parked up out of the way. Yes, I may be parked up on the grass, but maybe y’all need to reconsider the scheduling, and say, 'Hey, when we get such an overflow like this, that’s an exception.’”
Sometimes the Problem is Not the Problem
Case after case brings people who admit to breaking the rules but rush to dispute their guilt and offer an explanation. People representing themselves often admit they’re guilty without meaning it, or fail to raise the right legal arguments to contest their cases. Thomas Carpenter was in the emergency room at the VA, waiting to get admitted to the psychiatric ward, he said, after two days of trying to be seen. He had an empty pill bottle with him, which he gave to staff in the ER, and which later tested positive for cocaine residue.
“I wasn’t trying to bring anything into the hospital,” he complained repeatedly at his hearing in January. “If it was empty, why would I bring it in? The container was mine, so obviously I have to take the blame for it, but there was nothing in there.”
The court fined Carpenter $130, which he agreed to pay off at $20 a month. But after the verdict, he wanted to make one last point. “In defense of myself, I served for this country,” he said. “I was wounded twice!”
“I know,” Magistrate Judge Alicia Otazo-Reyes replied. “That’s why I lowered your fine sir.”
“I have mental issues. I have PTSD,” Carpenter said, but the verdict held.
The eight magistrate judges who preside over the ticket calendar rotate month by month. Chris McAliley, the judge from Pelegrino’s case, agreed to speak about the general themes that come up in her courtroom, without discussing any particular case.
“Sometimes people just need to be heard,” she said. “They need to explain their point of view about what happened ... what they perceive to be fair or unfair.”
“While the court’s view is, what is the law, I need to figure out what is the law, and then I need to follow it — that’s my job. And yet sometimes, simply applying the law isn’t addressing what people feel really is the problem,” she said.
Things can work differently on the rare occasions when there’s a lawyer involved. Cases go more slowly; every little piece of information gets held up to the light.
“Are you familiar with statute 38 1 218 B, subsection 26?” a defense lawyer asked a VA police officer during the same hearing.
“And so, you’re aware that infringement of that citation requires parking in a no-parking area marked by yellow lines?” The lawyer asked.
The parking lines in question were white; the case was thrown out.
I was sleeping on the sidewalk
The hardest cases don’t tend to be about parking. Mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness all figure regularly in the ticket calendar, and the court is ill-equipped to resolve any of the three.
In October, a homeless veteran named Robert Kendrick appeared for a disorderly conduct charge because of an argument with his ex-girlfriend at a VA clinic on Flagler Street. Kendrick was there to see a social worker. At the time, he was also sleeping on the sidewalk outside. When the argument started, Kendrick said, a VA police officer told him he had to leave if he didn’t want to go to jail. Kendrick’s version of events largely agreed with the officer’s: They exchanged some insults, and then he left. No one was disputing the fact that Kendrick had been disorderly.
But after a couple minutes of basic questions, the judge pauses, and puts all the legal arguments to the side.
“Here’s my problem with these cases, some of these cases,” said Magistrate Judge Patrick White. "We have people who are at these facilities because — are you a vet?” he asked Kendrick, interrupting himself.
“Yes sir,” Kendrick said.
“Some of these folk are kind of messed up,” White went on. “They have injuries and experiences that are kind of unbelievable to some of us who have not had those experiences. And some of them will be medicated for the rest of their lives, and, and some of them will never get well again. This seems to me, it’s a case, where you have a man who was sick, and who was very sick that day,” he said. “I’m gonna give him a pass on this one.”
“I hope I don’t see you again,” Judge White said as Kendrick walked out of the courtroom.
“Maybe at church,” Kendrick answered.
Correction: due to an error in information provided by the court clerk's office, an earlier version of this article misstated the identity of the judge who heard Robert Kendrick's case. He is Patrick White, not Barry Garber.