Case numbers in Montrose Municipal Court basically held steady between last year and 2017, but recently implemented laws are making their mark.
One, the so-called “debtors’ prison” law, by in large precludes municipal courts from issuing bench warrants for people who fail to appear for court dates if it involves monetary consideration, Municipal Judge Richard Brown said.
Although this and other newer legal provisions — which in effect bar cash bond for municipal offenses that are punishable by fines of $750, or up to six months in jail — have affected municipal court revenues, Brown is more concerned with accountability.
“It’s getting increasingly difficult to hold convicted criminals accountable. We’re having crime without consequences and victims don’t matter. That’s frustrating,” Brown said.
The laws are intended to prevent people from, in effect, being kept in jail purely for their inability to pay.
But in Montrose, Brown doesn’t tend to order jail for first offenses, instead assigning useful public service and ordering restitution, where appropriate. The court requires the person to show up for a later review hearing at which the court assesses compliance with its sentence.
“That’s what we used to do. If the person didn’t appear, we would issue a warrant for failure to appear, not failure to pay,” Brown said.
When a person did not appear for the review hearing, Brown would issue a bench warrant and usually set bail in the amount of restitution owed.
“Generally, the bonds would be around $200 or $300 bucks,” he said. A person who went through a bail bondsman would only have to come up with about 15 percent of that to be released.
But the law now prohibits issuance of municipal warrants for failure to appear when a sentence involves a monetary judgment, Brown said. Instead, the city attorney can file a contempt of court allegation for violation of sentencing provisions. This requires the individual to be re-served and for the process to begin anew, Brown said.
“The end result is a lot of people are never found. Everybody on the street knows … you don’t have to worry about being arrested if it’s just money,” he said.
Brown can issue warrants when people fail to complete their useful public service. But those who can claim an economic hardship also have a way out.
“The end result is, all we can do is turn it over to a state collection agency,” said Brown.
That has not proven effective. Over the past two years, municipal court has collected only about $1,200 by using a collections agency, he said.
“I’ve had to tell several victims to whom restitution was owed that I can’t help you; I can’t even get the defendant to court.”
Revenue is simply a byproduct of the court’s purpose, Brown earlier told Montrose City Council, in presenting his 2018 municipal court report.
The court is not intended as a money-generator — and as in years past, in 2018, its expenses were greater than its revenue.
However, the intake from fines for municipal court violations dropped dramatically from 2016, before the new laws went into effect, and the present. The court collected $41,000 in 2016 for those violations; $26,000 in 2017 and $27,000 last year.
“There’s a loss. I know it’s frustrating to officers; it’s frustrating to me because if the victim is owed money, I can’t help them out very much,” Brown said.
He said his court has always worked with indigent defendants.
The court also provides for a variety of sentences to promote accountability, for instance by allowing donations of food to Sharing Ministries, or to the animal shelter, in lieu of useful public service hours.
In 2018, about $600-worth of food was collected for Sharing Ministries; $1,800 in donations to Chow Down Pet Supply for credit to the animal shelter, and $600 in credit for animal control at local veterinary clinics.
Overall, nearly $3,000 was collected in lieu of useful public service hours.
Yet another recent law requires an attorney to be appointed to anyone in custody before that person appears in court, unless that person waives the appointment.
The law, passed in 2016, requires such representation at first advisement for municipal-level offenses if a person is in custody on charges that carry a potential jail sentence. The court must appoint an attorney for those who are indigent and face possible jail.
Backers of the law said it assures legal representation at critical stages; at the time of its introduction, however, the Colorado Municipal League said it stood to burden municipalities to the tune of an additional $2 million per year. The league called it an unfunded mandate; its sponsor said costs should never excuse failure to meet constitutional standards.
Cities are required to contract with a person to provide such advisement services, Brown said. He said he has attempted to do so through the state’s alternate defense counsel system; however, those he contacted were not prepared. Further, cities that contract with a private attorney to provide counsel have to appoint a review committee to monitor the attorney, he said.
Brown said he does appoint attorneys for indigent defendants, but the new law is “a bit of the cart before the horse” because it says if a person is in custody, he or she must have an attorney appointed before even appearing in court.
Municipal Court handles criminal, petty, misdemeanor and traffic offenses, as well as code and parking violations for adults and juveniles.
Last year, the Montrose Police Department and code enforcement division filed 1,708 cases, compared with 1,683 filings in 2017. Municipal code violations in 2018 stood at 421 for adults; Brown said of these, 181 were shoplifting offenses.
These cases, roughly a quarter of total code violations, take up the bulk of the court’s time, Brown said.
Juveniles racked up about 150 code cases; 100 of them were for marijuana, alcohol and shoplifting offenses.
Municipal Court tries to address these cases in its juvenile court process, including a monthly Teen Court, where youthful peers serve as the prosecution, defense and jurors, through the Montrose High School government class.
“If they go through teen court and complete everything, they can get everything dismissed. It works pretty well,” Brown said.
For adults, certain traffic violations are eligible for deferred judgment if defendants complete the Montrose Police Department’s driver’s education program and pay the $50 fee. Successfully complying with the terms of a deferral means the defendant won’t stand convicted of the charged offense.
The city’s program is also available in neighboring municipalities and in 2018, drew 71 people from Montrose and Olathe, plus led to $3,545 being collected. The court now offers an online course and saw 29 people enrolled in it last year.
Coming up this year: Municipal Court will host the Court Basics Training on July 17, bringing in court clerks from around the state. As well, Brown hopes to bring in a student intern this summer.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.