September 20, 1995 in Nation/World

Judges Attack Ticket Backlog In An Attempt To Clear Up Cases, The Idaho Supreme Court Is Sending Two Extra Judges To Kootenai County

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Misty Sellers-Black finally proved her innocence Tuesday - she just wishes it hadn’t taken 10 months.

After all, it was only a traffic ticket.

“I knew I wasn’t guilty,” she said after convincing a judge she shouldn’t have been cited for failure to yield. “I cleared my name.”

Sellers-Black is one of nearly 800 people who will get a chance during the next two weeks to insist they weren’t speeding, that they did stop for that stop sign or that they really did have the right of way when their fender-bender occurred.

In an attempt to clean up an overwhelming backlog of infraction cases, the Idaho Supreme Court is sending two extra judges to Kootenai County to hear the marathon sessions.

“We’re just trying to play catch-up,” said Judge Don Swanstrom, the magistrate who organized the sessions.

Infractions are relatively minor offenses such as speeding and failing to stop at a stop sign. They usually result in a traffic ticket.

But in Kootenai County, drivers who have pleaded not guilty have had to wait up to a year before their cases go to trial - sometimes longer.

The infraction cases have piled up because judges here are swamped by more serious cases. Also, there are too few courtrooms to hold trials in, Swanstrom said.

So this week, Judge Stephen Calhoun from Lewis County is scheduled to hear close to 80 infraction cases a day. Next week, a magistrate from Ada County will do the same.

On Tuesday morning, a crowd sat silently in Courtroom 1, waiting to tell their tales. On the opposite side of the room sat seven police officers, waiting to tell their side of things.

In most infraction cases, the accused don’t have an attorney and instead get their first taste of lawyering.

It’s not always easy, as one woman who tried her hand at cross-examination discovered.

“Objection,” the prosecutor called out as the woman questioned the police officer who stopped her.

“Sustained,” Calhoun answered.

“What does that mean?” the woman asked.

Eleven months ago Allen Messner was cited after a Coeur d’Alene Police officer saw him pull out in front of an oncoming car.

“I know I had plenty of room to go in front of that car,” he told Calhoun. “The car was going slow like it was looking for an address or something.”

But for Messner, the results of his Tuesday trial didn’t seem worth the 11-month wait. The judge still ordered him to pay the $47 fine.

“Maybe I should have asked them for 11 months to pay,” he said.

This two-week marathon is both difficult for the accused and the officers.

For many of the drivers, it means missing half a day of work as they await their turn. For several officers, it means coming in on their day off.

And for both sides it has been a long time since the tickets were written.

“You forget a lot of things that happened,” Sellers-Black said.

Coeur d’Alene police officer Gary Hayes wrote almost 2,000 tickets last year and will have to go to court on 28 cases one day next week. He will rely on notes he took at each scene to remember what happened.

Despite the drivers’ best efforts at fighting their tickets, few have luck overturning them. Kootenai County Deputy Prosecutor Joel Hazel said that out of the 17 cases he took to trial Monday, 16 of the drivers were found at fault.

Court officials are looking into ways to prevent another backlog, Hazel said. Ideas include night court and having attorneys become temporary judges.

, DataTimes


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