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A courthouse moment: ‘Nobody takes this court seriously. Nobody.’

On Feb. 23, Vi Ong was charged with felony larceny. He was ordered to pay $149 in restitution to Target and complete community service.

He’s also on the hook for an additional $200 of “court costs”: $147.50 for the “general court of justice” fee, $12 for the facilities fee, $2 for the DNA fee, and several others. Five dollars will go to an ambiguous “service” fee.

Twenty dollars of his court costs — 10% — go toward just setting up an installment plan for his payments.

Once he makes those payments and completes community service, his case can be dismissed.

Now, Ong is in court for a compliance hearing. Judge Pat Evans will be checking on his progress.

Ong tells the court he recently faced an unexpected expense; his car broke down, forcing him to pay for repairs. He asks Judge Pat Evans for an extension on his court payments. 

Already that day, Judge Evans had postponed hearings and, in one case, dismissed a judgement entirely. When younger defendants say they’ll represent themselves, she provides a motherly nudge and recommends that they apply for court-appointed counsel.

But she doesn’t have that kind of patience for Ong. 

When Judge Evans flips over the envelope with Ong’s file, she makes no effort to put on a poker face — her eyes widen when she realizes his case has been carried over since February.

She orders him to pay the entire amount — all $249 — by the end of the day.

“Nobody takes this court seriously,” she says. “Nobody.”

The courtroom is silent, save the low mutter of “She’s not playing” from someone in the back. 

Ong heads out of the courtroom, down four floors to the cashier’s office, where’s he’s expected to make a payment that he cannot afford.

“I’m a little bit confused,” he says, “because the last time, the judge told me that I have up to a year to do the community service and to pay.”

Just that morning, Ong says, the clerk reassured him that he would qualify for an extension and that he shouldn’t worry about having to pay yet.

Ong says that he doesn’t know if Judge Evans even remembers his case or what she told him at his previous hearing. He uses a credit card but says he doesn’t know how he’s going to be able to find the money this month to pay down the balance.

“So now,” he says, “I have to scramble to make up the difference.”

Niharika Vattikonda

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