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Notes from a courtroom 

They were unemployed, pregnant, disabled, career criminals and businessmen brought together last week outside courtroom 7D because they owed money to Orange County.

At first there was nothing for the 40 people to do but wait -- ironic, given that they were in court because they had tested the patience of the legal system.

An hour passed before a bailiff allowed them into collections court -- believed to be the only one in Florida over which a judge presides. "The courtroom is crowded today," the stocky bailiff announced. "Families have to wait outside."

From the bench, County Judge C. Jeffrey Arnold, a middle-age man with a thinning hair line, issued a no-nonsense warning: "We will not be talking about whether [your fines] should be paid but when they should be paid." It was his "absolute and total" conviction that he would "collect every single penny. It's a matter of how, not if."

The how of this collection court would not be a simple matter. One man who described himself with "full-blown AIDS" had no job and lived only on Social Security. Arnold allowed him to work community service at $5 an hour.

An overweight woman who lived on a $500-a-month disability check failed to pay a fine because she elected to have a dentist work on an abscessed molar. Couldn't she pick up extra work ironing or baby-sitting, Arnold asked. "Sometimes I'm OK, sometimes I'm not," replied the woman, who had trouble standing because of nerve-spine damage. She was allowed to pay the court $20 a month.

Arnold has been holding collection court since November. Before that, paying fines and court costs was run on the honor system -- meaning very few people paid. According to court administrator Tom Preston, only 20 percent of the millions of dollars in fines issued by Orange County judges were collected prior to collections court.

Since then, Arnold's court has collected so much money that the clerk's office is demanding more staff. "More people are showing up at their desks trying to make payments," Arnold says. "The number of transactions on their cash registers is staggering." In December, for example, Orange County collected $50,000 more than it did in December 1998.

When Arnold questions defendants about why they have failed to pay their fines, 85 percent say they forgot, he says. "The rest say they don't have a good excuse."

No one has protested to Arnold on grounds of civil disobedience. But Arnold did have a man tell him his payments were delinquent because he was too lazy to work. Arnold referred him to the labor pool and told him he'd have to work at least one day a month.

"Justice unfulfilled is justice denied," Arnold says. "That's why we're going to get this thing done."

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More by William Dean Hinton


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