“The good news is, nobody’s going to jail tonight.”
Gulbrandsen sits before a full house for the monthly “call” in the basement of Forest Park Village Hall. But even though they chuckle, most of his audience members are extremely nervous. Many have been arrested and charged with local ordinance violations by the Forest Park police.
“You are lucky to be here,” Gulbrandsen told the group on Sept. 5. “You could be at Maywood, and it’s a whole other world over there.”
Gulbrandsen, Forest Park’s adjudicator, presides at local ordinance court the first Wednesday of every month. It’s Forest Park’s very own reality court show, held before a live audience.
Before him runs a river of misbehavior to untangle: parking, property maintenance, dogs-at-large, as well as low-level criminal charges, like first-time shoplifting, that do not involve the state’s attorney. Also dealt with in his court are neighbor disputes, nuisance complaints, small-time marijuana arrests and many juvenile offenses.
“Underage drinking. How old are you? Twenty? When will you be 21?” he grills a giggling young woman. The woman gets her fine reduced from $500 to $200. “Wait till your birthday in April. I don’t want to see you again.”
“I always treat them with respect,” Gulbrandsen said. “I try to make people comfortable and let them know they’ll be treated fairly. They usually get a fine and an admonition not to do it again.”
Their presence in this courtroom shows one thing, he said. “The police have already given them a break. They aren’t the repeat offenders; they’ve been charged with violating local ordinances instead of misdemeanors.”
The call serves as the lesser-evil of court appearances: a legal purgatory instead of the more hellacious Maybrook courthouse.
Hearings also inject fine revenue into the village coffers although the judge is usually lenient if you show up. Red light tickets are fined $100, but other ordinance violations can run up to $750. If a defendant doesn’t show up, the judge automatically imposes the maximum $750 fine for each violation. But if they come to court, Gulbrandsen usually offers defendants a discount if they’re out of work, still in school or retired. Wednesday he offered a further discount: “If you pay today, we’ll give you 20 percent off.”
“We don’t use this as a revenue raiser,” said prosecutor Sharon O’Shea.
Wednesday, the judge told a cannabis defendant from Oak Park that he could face up to $750 each for possession of drugs and paraphernalia.
“Don’t bring cannabis back into Forest Park,” the judge warned. “I don’t want to know who you are. The worse thing in the world is for the judge to know who you are.” He reduced the fines to $300.
Gulbrandsen served in Vietnam as a Marine Corps captain, and graduated from Lake Forest College and DePaul University Law School. He was a circuit court judge for 11 years.
For first-time shoplifters, the judge offers participation in the Behavior Theft Deterrent Program, co-offered by Cook County and Rush Hospital.
“If you complete the program, the charges are dropped,” he tells two brothers, 14 and 9, charged with shoplifting. “You don’t want to be known as thieves.”
He points to their anxious parents: “You’re lucky you have someone in your life who cares about you.” To the older sibling he admonishes, “I get the feeling [the shoplifting] was your idea. Remember, your younger brother is looking up to you.”
Intervention after the first time a shoplifter is caught is often successful, the judge said. “No one’s refused to complete the program unless they were moving out of the jurisdiction.”
For juveniles the judge has a special approach. As he reads the paperwork for an 11-year-old boy charged with street fighting, Gulbrandsen leans across the bench. “Do you know how to use a computer? I want you to write a book report on teenage violence in our society – 250 words.” He tells the boy he will read the report out loud at the October call in front of the audience.
“I’m going to put you on the microphone right here. The people in the audience will choose the fine.” To the lad’s parents he asks, “Does he listen to you?” Then, “I think you might have to practice this with Mom and Dad.”
By now, the parents’ anxious faces have cracked with cautious smiles. “If you don’t do a good job, if this audience doesn’t like it, your parents are going to pay a big fine. And you’ll have a lot of chores to do.”
“Yes, sir,” is the soft reply.
It’s an approach that can change a kid’s attitude in a month, the judge said. “They think about what they did. They rehearse with their parents. It’s an educational process that’s occurring and it helps communication.”
“Giving the speech gets kids motivated. There’s a sense of theater to it.”
A sense of theater and an interest in people have served him well on the bench. When he was in traffic court in the ’80s, he had a “schtick,” he says, that used to draw onlookers from neighboring courtrooms. He would offer all the money in his wallet to anyone who could catch a pen. Then he would drop the pen to the desk.
“You weren’t expecting that,” he would say. “There are 86,400 seconds in a day and you risked your life and the lives of others to gain three seconds at that intersection.” The dropping pen is a metaphor for the unforeseen risks of breaking the traffic rules.
Gulbrandsen enjoys a second career officiating at civil weddings, at which he writes unique wedding vows based on the personal “love stories” of prospective brides and grooms. He also runs a Viking-themed college scholarship and is helping the “Friends of the Viking Ship” to acquire from the Chicago Park District ownership of the Viking ship replica displayed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
He even has his own regulars who come to village hall monthly for the entertainment value. “I have a couple of people who come every month,” he noted.
“It’s a mixture of humor, pathos and potential behavior modification.”