Saturday, December 07, 2002

More ravers than not expected plead not guilty

By TOM KERTSCHER
tkertscher@journalsentinel.com
Last Updated: Dec. 7, 2002

Racine - Unless things begin to turn around on Monday, the city's plan to settle 441 rave citation cases by cutting the fine is in trouble.

The first wave of the 441 people ticketed at a Nov. 2 rave made their initial appearance in Racine Municipal Court last week. Most of the people standing in line were waiting to plead not guilty and get another court date.
A storm of denunciation descended upon city officials after it was revealed that police had issued $968 municipal tickets to young adults attending a Nov. 2 rave, a party known for distinctive dance music and, oftentimes, illegal drug use.

Even city officials who supported the crackdown said the fine was too high.

In response, the city attorney's office offered to reduce the fine to $100 for anyone who pleaded no contest to being an "inmate of a disorderly house." But when the first wave of those ticketed made their initial appearance in Municipal Court last week, only 19 of 206 took the deal.

If that trend continues on Monday and on Dec. 16, when the rest of those cited will make their initial court appearances, the city could be facing the costly prospect of hundreds of trials - or dismissing the citations en masse.

Assistant City Attorney Scott Lewis said he won't know what will happen until after the second round of court hearings that begin Dec. 18, when people who pleaded not guilty appear for pretrial conferences.

At that time, Lewis said, he will be able to assess how strong the evidence is and decide how to proceed.

With the sheer numbers involved, "I admit I'm placed in a very difficult position here," Lewis said.

The plea bargain obviously offered a substantial fine reduction, but many of those cited said last week that they refused the deal because they had done nothing wrong. They pointed out that only three men were arrested on drug charges, but everyone at the party received the municipal citation, regardless of how long they had been at the party or other factors.

"Basically you're guilty by association and the Constitution says you can't do that," said Racine attorney Erik Guenther, who is representing some of those who were cited.

Even those who might have considered paying the $100 to be done with the case decided against the plea bargain because the citation includes a reference to controlled substances. Although a municipal citation is far less serious than a criminal charge, no one wanted to have a drug-related offense on their record, and many were girding for a fight.

"I think we'll win. Everybody I talked to is on our side," said Laura Maurer, 21, of Waukesha, who plans to enter her not-guilty plea Monday.

"I feel if everybody pleads not guilty, it will get thrown out," added Kurt Bohman, 27, who performed as "DJ Simple" at the rave and drove six hours from his Minneapolis home to plead not guilty last week. "It will clog up the court system. It already has."

Court officials had expected no more than 100 people would plead not guilty last week and were unable to immediately schedule a pretrial conference for about half of them. The hallway outside the court clerk's office was filled with those pleading not guilty, many sporting multiple body piercings and a few who brought their toddlers.

Ald. John Engel, chairman of the Common Council's Public Safety and Buildings Committee, said he agreed with offering to reduce the fines, but said it was important that police took a hard line at the rave party in order to discourage future raves. He said such parties are known for illegal drug use and illegal drugs were found at the Racine party, which was held at the Tradewinds tavern.

"Are we turning into a rigid, hard-nosed community? I don't think so," Engel said.

Engel and other city officials acknowledged that one of the aims of the crackdown was to discourage anyone from ever holding another rave in Racine. It might have worked.

"I would never come down here again," said Joseph Johnson, 25, of Milwaukee.

Daniel Kushner, 23, of Chicago, who like Johnson pleaded not guilty last week, said the popularity of raves had been on the decline, partly because of the law enforcement crackdowns, which usually result in raves being shut down and party-goers being sent home.

"The golden era of the scene has passed," he said. "They've worn us down pretty well. There's no 'us' anymore."

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