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Appeals ruling puts municipal court decisions in legal limbo

Fri., Nov. 9, 2007

Thousands of petty criminals could have their convictions thrown out and millions of dollars in fines refunded because Spokane County District Court judges overstepped their authority for more than a decade by improperly handling city cases, an appeals court ruled Thursday.

The decision, which overturns two otherwise simple drunken driving convictions, has such far-reaching implications that it could trigger what’s believed to be the largest legal debacle of overturned Spokane Municipal Court cases in city history.

Unless the decision is overturned by the Washington Supreme Court, the ruling would invalidate every DUI and domestic violence conviction, and all contested speeding and parking tickets issued between 1995 and Jan. 1, several legal and court officials said.

“It’s potentially a huge, huge impact – and we’re trying to deal with it in an orderly fashion,” said Sara Derr, who serves as the District Court presiding judge.

Local attorney Breean Beggs – who brought the lawsuit that generated the ruling – questions why the city didn’t do more to avert the crisis it now faces.

“It was preventable,” Beggs said. “The city had the opportunity over the last two years to resolve this particular case in a way that would not have resulted in this ruling … and there would be no jeopardy to these other cases.”

The flaw came in how the judges were elected, according to the 2-1 decision by the state Court of Appeals Division III.

State law mandates that Spokane residents alone elect the judges who handle municipal cases, such as trespassing, shoplifting, speeding and DUI within city limits.

But in Spokane, an agreement was struck between the city and county to assign District Court judges – who are chosen by voters in countywide elections – to preside over the city’s municipal court caseload. Beggs successfully argued it violated state law because voters outside Spokane city limits were allowed to choose city judges.

“We conclude … that the way in which the Spokane municipal judges are elected is contrary to state law,” appellate judge Dennis Sweeney wrote in Thursday’s opinion. Judge John Schultheis concurred, but judge Stephen Brown dissented.

City officials, lawyers and judges scrambled for most of the day to determine how to proceed, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said.

City Prosecutor Howard Delaney “plans to seek some clarification on the decision from the court of appeals,” she said. “He is also trying to take some immediate steps on the most pressing issues, such as outstanding misdemeanor warrants. And he has asked jail officials how many inmates are currently being held on convictions from municipal court.”

Spokane County sheriff’s deputies and city police have stopped executing misdemeanor warrants involving city cases related to alleged crimes prior to Jan. 1.

Judge Derr said the ruling “essentially says that we have no authority to handle city cases until this year. We are attempting to comply with the order of the court, to the best of our ability and as quickly as possible.”

The court instituted technical changes this year that brought it under compliance with state law, she said.

Although there’s a legal 30-day “reconsideration period” for the ruling, court officials are not going to wait, Derr said. However, court clerks are not going to start issuing refunds for fines and fees today, Derr added.

“Until we have information on those fees and fines, we ask everybody to be calm – we’ll certainly get to everybody,” Derr said.

The trigger case began in 2005 when Spokane residents Henry Smith and Lawrence Rothwell challenged their DUI convictions under the argument that District Judge Patti Connolly Walker lacked jurisdiction to decide their case because they were both arrested in Spokane city limits.

Judge Walker, who was elected in a countywide race, denied their motions. Smith and Rothwell appealed the case to Spokane Superior Court Judge Rebecca Baker. She likewise ruled that Walker had jurisdiction.

With the help of Beggs, an attorney for the public interest law firm Center for Justice, Smith and Rothwell appealed their case to the State Court of Appeals Division III.

Along with conviction reversals, the case could have “unimaginable” effects that could take years to unravel, said Superior Court Judge Sam Cozza. For instance, if a DUI conviction is reversed, court records must be changed, any subsequent convictions would be altered, and the state would have to change the offender’s driving record.

Last year alone, Spokane Municipal Court handled 25,104 traffic tickets, 608 DUIs, and more than 10,000 misdemeanor crimes, including serious traffic charges, according to the state Office of the Administrator for the Courts.

“Those are all kind of thrown into a state of uncertainty,” Judge Cozza said.

In addition to evaluating the local impact of the appellate court ruling, Derr’s office has sent a query to the Administrative Office of the Courts in Olympia to assist with an analysis of the fiscal impact.

“As we speak, we are running queries in our system. We’ll be meeting all day” today, Derr said. “We need to minimize the risk to the citizens.”

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