Jefferson seeks faster resolution of certain district court cases
By Jason Riley and R. G. Dunlop | The Courier-Journal
In a radical change designed to help resolve district court cases more quickly while reducing the time police officers are off the streets, the Jefferson County attorney’s office tomorrow is ending a long-standing practice of routinely subpoenaing police for thousands of pretrial hearings in traffic and misdemeanor cases.
The change also is expected to save metro Louisville government hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual payments to police for off-duty court appearances.
Those expenditures exceeded $100,000 a month — more than $1.5 million annually — last year and in 2007.
More than 113,000 misdemeanor and traffic cases passed through Jefferson District Court in 2008, and many were resolved without hearings or any witnesses being subpoenaed to testify. But in “95 percent” of the cases that required at least one court hearing, the subpoenaed officers were not needed, and their presence had no bearing on the outcome, Louisville Metro Police Chief Robert White said in a recent interview.
“They are going there, sitting around,” he said. “That should not occur.”
For many years, and despite a local court rule adopted by district judges approximately a decade ago discouraging the practice, it has been customary for prosecutors to subpoena officers for pretrial hearings in traffic and misdemeanor cases — even though court officials agree with White that they generally have had little or no effect on the end result.
“Why in the world is an officer being subpoenaed in a 12-mph-over speeding case?” asked District Judge Anne Haynie. “It’s been that way forever.”
White and other police officials said they do not know precisely how much money the new policy might save. But they estimated the number of subpoenas to officers is likely to decline by at least 30 percent.
And the reduction in the annual outlay for court pay could be nearly that much , because records indicate about 90 percent of officers’ court appearances during the past two years occurred while they were off duty.
Police receive $50 for the first two hours they spend in court during non-working hours and collect overtime pay after that. There is no extra compensation for officers appearing in court while on duty.
So given that virtually everyone involved agrees that police officers have been subpoenaed unnecessarily for such hearings, why has the practice endured ?
That’s a matter of dispute.
Glenda Bradshaw, head of the criminal division in the county attorney’s office since 2001, places the responsibility squarely on some district judges who, she said in an interview last week, have dismissed cases, over prosecutors’ objections, if officers were not present to testify.
As a result of those dismissals, Bradshaw said, prosecutors felt compelled to have police in court to “protect” cases, even if their testimony probably would not be required.
Bradshaw said she believes such dismissals have declined in recent years because of turnover on the district court bench and the county attorney’s successful appeals of more than a dozen dismissed cases to Jefferson Circuit Court. Kentucky appellate courts also have ruled at least twice that district judges cannot dismiss criminal complaints before trial without prosecutors’ assent.
But told of Bradshaw’s contention that prosecutors subpoenaed police to guard against judges dismissing cases when witnesses were absent, Chief Jefferson District Judge Sean Delahanty responded: “That’s bull—-. You can put that in the paper.”
Delahanty said that the county attorney’s successful appeals represented only a tiny fraction of cases dismissed over prosecutors’ objections. Moreover, he said, judges have a responsibility to manage their dockets.
If prosecutors think judges are abusing their discretion, Delahanty said, they should “get their appellate lawyers cranked up.”
“We have a responsibility to tell the county, ‘Either prosecute the case or I’m dismissing it.’”
The “more likely explanation” for prosecutors subpoenaing officers who weren’t needed, Delahanty said, has been to allow police to collect extra income .
“Long ago, it was sort of presumed that this was sort of a labor issue, that the police department believed that (court pay) was part of their compensation package,” Delahanty said.
Haynie agreed that “speculation has been that it’s court-pay- based.”
Bradshaw, however, denied that officers were subpoenaed merely to allow them to collect court pay . And Bill Patteson, a spokesman for the county attorney’s office, said: “Our motivation has been to ensure justice.”
White agreed that officers’ court pay would be reduced as a result of the decline in subpoenas. But he said making better use of officers’ time, not saving money, was the driving force behind the department embracing the change.
Traffic officers in court
Louisville Metro Police Sgt. John McGuire, head of the River City Fraternal Order of Police, said fewer subpoenas will result in a “significant reduction” in court pay for certain officers, including some who are responsible for traffic enforcement on Louisville-area interstates and who write large numbers of tickets.
For example, two traffic officers, Samuel Cromity and Clarence Beauford, each logged more than 1,000 hours of court pay between 2004 and 2008, according to police records, and each earned nearly $50,000 as a result.
But what taxpayers received in return is open to question. A Courier-Journal review of Cromity’s 2008 traffic and misdemeanor cases — nearly 3,000 in all — found that even when he appeared in court, the vast majority of his cases either were reduced to lesser charges or dismissed.
Cromity and Beauford declined to be interviewed, according to police spokeswoman Alicia Smiley.
McGuire said the FOP was not consulted by police officials before the change in subpoena policy was announced. Because the issue affects some officers’ wages and hours, McGuire said, the union is considering filing a grievance with the city or a complaint through the Kentucky Labor Cabinet.
He acknowledged, however, that in addition to reducing court pay, the new policy also may help address the issue of some subpoenaed police officers not coming to court, which was explored by The Courier-Journal in a series of articles in March .
The newspaper found that more than 600 felony defendants were set free in 2007 alone after their cases were dismissed because officers did not appear to testify. Countless more misdemeanor cases were dismissed for the same reason.
Prosecutors and police responded to those articles with several proposals, including the revamped subpoena policy that takes effect tomorrow, as well as providing more oversight of officers’ court attendance and adopting a system of electronic subpoenas to eliminate manually serving police with thousands of paper documents each month.
There will be some exceptions to the new policy on subpoenas, including cases involving domestic violence, sexual assault and driving drunk or without insurance when an accident has occurred.
And because officers will be making fewer court appearances, they have been told to provide “sufficient” detail of the alleged crime in their citations, and to be responsive to prosecutors’ requests for additional information.
Whether the new framework actually will speed the resolution of cases — and in a way that does not compromise a just result — depends partly on how defendants, their attorneys, prosecutors and the courts respond, officials said.
Some defense attorneys and their clients want to question officers about the details of an arrest or citation before resolving it. So if cases are delayed until an officer is present, “this approach doesn’t seem to make much sense,” said Dan Goyette, head of the city’s p ublic defender’s office.
Goyette also expressed concern that the new approach could actually increase costs if some defendants are kept in jail longer.
Bradshaw, of the county attorney’s office, said prosecutors will seek to combat delays by setting cases for trial if the defendant does not plead guilty at the first preliminary hearing.
But former District Judge Deborah Deweese said multiple pretrial hearings sometimes are needed for the equitable resolution of a case.
“If there’s even an implicit theory that we’re trying to compel people to resolve cases, that troubles me,” Deweese said. “The duty of everyone involved is to search for the truth. We don’t want that to be overcome by a push to resolve cases quickly. Nobody wants to sacrifice justice for expediency.”
Deweese and Delahanty also expressed concern that if defense lawyers start to routinely insist on having police officers present to conclude cases, the result could be more trials that could overwhelm an already overburdened court system.
But defense attorney Paul Gold, a former district judge, said he expects prosecutors will have little problem disposing of most cases without the presence of police.
Gold said defense attorneys generally will not push for trials because doing so would take more of their time and cost clients money, for no good purpose.
The new policy, he said, “should reduce the backlog of cases in the district court, which will make it run more efficiently.”
Reporter Jason Riley can be reached at (502) 582-4727. Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at (502) 582-4227.
Officers “are going there, sitting around. That should not occur.”
PAUL S. Gold, Louisville Criminal Attorney and Former Judge and Prosecutor
ROBERT WHITE, chief, Louisville Metro Police
Prosecutors felt compelled to have police in court to “protect” cases.
GLENDA BRADSHAW, criminal division, Jefferson County attorney’s office
“We have a responsibility to tell the county, ‘Either prosecute the case or I’m dismissing it.’”
SEAN DELAHANTY, chief Jefferson district judge
“The duty … is to search for the truth. … Nobody wants to sacrifice justice for expediency.”
DEBORAH DEWEESE, former district judge
To read the three-day series on the effect of officers failing to show up for court, go to www.courier-journal.com/absent
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.