Not too long ago, a defendant came into Yellowstone County Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez’s courtroom to enter a plea to charges of aggravated DUI and eluding a peace officer.
Staff members had already warned Hernandez that the man reeked of alcohol, and one glance at the defendant made it clear to the judge that he was in no condition to deal with such a serious matter.
“I looked at him and said, ‘What gives?’ He said, ‘I only had two beers.’ I’m sorry I said it, but I said, ‘You’re an idiot.’”
It was a rare lapse in decorum for Hernandez, but after nearly 40 years on the bench he’s still occasionally shocked by what he sees.
In the case of the DUI driver, Hernandez asked him to step out in the hall so a sheriff’s deputy could check his blood-alcohol level. In the hallway, his BAC measured 0.13 percent, well over the 0.08 level beyond which it is illegal to drive.
By the time the man walked inside and stood before the judge again, the deputy said the level was still rising on the testing device, eventually reaching 0.217. It was 9:30 a.m.
Still, at least with alcohol-related crimes, things haven’t changed much. Hernandez estimates that half the matters he deals with in Justice Court are rooted in alcohol abuse, and that figure hasn’t changed much over the years.
One thing that has changed a lot is the way people dress.
“When I first started in the court, people came dressed for court,” Hernandez said. Not necessarily in suits and dresses, but attired respectfully and with an eye toward making a good impression.
Now, he said, people come in any old clothes — T-shirts and dirty jeans, pants with waistbands hanging down a foot below the waist, untied shoes and, particularly in the case of younger women, attire that goes beyond being merely casual.
“This idea of wearing these pajamas and slippers — it’s unbelievable,” Hernandez said.
Likewise, he said, there was a time when even the most hardened malefactors knew enough to take their hats off when they came into court. Not anymore.
The worst case Hernandez ever saw involved a painter who came to court straight from work, his hair, face and hands covered with paint, his clothes smudged with splotches of wet paint.
“I told him he could not sit. He had to stand.”
People’s attitudes have definitely changed, too, partly because of the lowbrow courtroom shows on TV. It’s not unusual for a defendant to talk back to the judge or start yelling in court.
Hernandez has had to warn defendants about their behavior, only to hear them say, “I thought this was run like Judge Judy’s court.”
The judge does have some advice for defendants: leave your kids at home. He said he can’t believe how many times people facing serious charges will bring their children with them.
What are they trying to do, play on the judge’s sympathy? Give the kids an object lesson in the wages of sin? Hernandez doesn’t know, but he thinks there are some things children shouldn’t have to witness.
A recent change in the clientele is tied to the energy boom in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. Hernandez said workers from all over the country are flooding into the area, and often they come to Billings for a little R&R and end up getting into trouble.
But they’re making so much money that they’ll pay a huge fine without blinking and continue on their merry way.
“It’s like the old days — Dodge City, Deadwood,” Hernandez said. “They come in here with an attitude that they can do whatever they want because they’re not from here.”
You’d think that 40 years of dealing with thousands of people involved in unseemly, unsafe and antisocial activities would have a depressing effect on a justice of the peace, but Hernandez has never let it bother him.
His technique is a good one, worthy of emulation.
“I have fun,” he said. “I have fun with defendants, with lawyers and with other judges.”
And he keeps his eyes on the prize.
“I walk out the door of this courthouse and my thoughts are of home,” he said.