News


Releases from jail frustrate police

SATURDAY, OCT. 25, 2008

Proposals streamline charging process

He’s a career criminal who police say makes his living burglarizing homes and selling what he steals.

So when a series of residential burglaries hit a Spokane Valley neighborhood in late summer, police quickly fingered Charles R. Cope as a suspect. A detective found enough evidence to charge the 33-year-old felon with five counts of residential burglary and booked Cope into the Spokane County Jail.

But when sheriff’s Detective Mark Stewart went to charge Cope with three other burglaries nearly 10 days later, his suspect was long gone. Jailers at the Geiger Corrections Center had released him three days earlier because charges hadn’t been formally filed; that step is required within 72 hours of a jail booking by state law.

Cope’s paperwork arrived at the jail two hours after he was released.

“It’s an archaic system,” Stewart said.

A study by a criminal justice consultant David Bennett in February found 1 in 4 people arrested for felonies in Spokane County leave jail after three days because required paperwork hasn’t been filed.

The finding was one of a long list of problems Bennett found in the Spokane County justice system.

Representatives from various parts of the system have been working with Bennett since February to address those problems. They’re looking at all aspects of the justice system to identify changes that could streamline the paperwork process, free up time for bigger cases and shrink the jail population while keeping dangerous criminals locked up, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said.

“Hopefully, it will reduce the number of beds we need to build in the new jail,” he said. A group of 14 county and city employees traveled to Hillsboro, Ore., near Portland, this month to examine Washington County’s early case resolution program, which is similar to Bennett’s proposal for Spokane County.

Bennett made his first recommendation to county commissioners last week about expanding pretrial services to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, instead of regular business hours. Many more recommendations will follow.

“It’s not a 30-second sound bite solution,” Knezovich said. “It’s multiple layers that need to be sorted out.”

‘It happens all the time’

A tip to Crime Stoppers led to Cope’s re-arrest just days after Stewart discovered the error and a week after Cope left jail. But by that time, Cope – who police say once took along his girlfriend’s 7-year-old daughter on a burglary – had burglarized three other homes in the same neighborhood, including Ted Gay’s, police say.

Gay and his wife, Anne, weren’t home when a burglar showed up at their doorstep, and their three children didn’t wake up to the knock on the door. After crawling in through an unlocked kitchen window, police say, Cope left the Gays’ Buckeye Avenue home with jewelry, a mountain bike, six plastic jars filled with coins, and a tube packed with state quarters.

When officers took Gay’s report, they told him about the suspect’s release days earlier.

“They seemed as frustrated with the situation as we were,” Gay said. “The police did their job: They arrested the man. And then the judicial system broke down from that point.”

Cope, who declined an interview for this article, joins a long list of those arrested on suspicion of felonies but released without charges because of bureaucratic mishaps.

“It happens all the time,” Stewart said.

It happened to a Coeur d’Alene man arrested for striking a Washington State Patrol trooper with his car in August. And it happened to a 45-year-old Spokane man now convicted of the late December drunken driving crash that killed an 11-year-old Spokane Valley boy. Cope was the only one to re-offend during his mistaken release, according to court records.

Part of the solution lies in getting everyone in the justice system to see filing charges within 72 hours as “a rule and not an exception,” Bennett said. In Spokane County, “there wasn’t a policy of getting cases filed within 72 hours. Some did, but a lot didn’t.”

‘A global problem’

Following an arrest, officers fill out a report that’s sent to the prosecutor’s office, which fills out charging papers that are to be signed by a judge and then returned to the jail. Mistaken releases like Cope’s aren’t caused by just one office – problems can pop up at any step.

“It’s kind of a global problem,” Knezovich said. “From the time they’re being arrested to the time they go before the judge is being looked at.”

In Cope’s case, Stewart said, the court returned the charging papers after the deadline. When William D. Zink was released without charges after allegedly striking a trooper with his car, police hadn’t gotten the paperwork to the prosecutor’s office in time, said Jack Driscoll, a Spokane County deputy prosecutor. William R. Keizer, who’s serving four years in prison for vehicular homicide, was released without charges three days after his December 2007 arrest in the killing because the prosecutor’s office hadn’t completed its paperwork, according to police.

One possible solution: eliminating steps in the charging process. Officials made a recent decision, for example, to allow arresting officers to send drug arrest reports to the prosecutor without the approval of a drug detective, Bennett said.

Bennett’s proposal last week to expand pretrial services – including, for example, future risk assessment to determine bail – to all day every day could shorten the time between a suspect’s arrest and his first appearance in court. There would be more attention given to making sure defendants know their courts dates, Bennett said, which would reduce no-shows and re-arrests, leading to a smaller jail population and more attention to bigger cases like Cope’s.

“There seem to be plenty of opportunities for us to be more efficient with our current system before,” county Commissioner Todd Mielke said.

But Bennett’s proposals will come with a price tag, and the commission will likely need to weigh the benefits of each before deciding which to approve, Mielke said: “Where do we get the biggest bang for the buck if we can’t afford to do them all? Which is probably going to be predicament we’re in.”

Meghann M. Cuniff can be reached at (509) 459-5534 or at meghannc@spokesman.com.


Click here to comment on this story »