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City attorney says budget cuts taking a bite out of legal system

WILLMAR -- City Attorney Rich Ronning says the state Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office did not adequately fund the state's judicial system in 2009.

As was true for many other branches of government, there was a significant budget cut for the criminal justice system. The cut had a huge negative effect on the courts as well as on the Public Defender's Office, Ronning said.

The Court Administrator's Office in Kandiyohi County now closes at 2 p.m. Fridays and sends its employees home without pay for the rest of the day, Ronning said. He said the office decided to do this rather than lay employees off.

"However, the way it looks for this year's legislative session, there will be significant budget cuts again and more than likely there will be layoffs in the Court Administrator's Office,'' Ronning said during his annual report to the Willmar City Council Monday night.

The most significant thing that happened as a result of budget cuts in the judicial system was a substantial change in how the courts treat misdemeanors. The maximum fine for a misdemeanor is $1,000 and maximum jail time is 90 days.

Ronning said a substantial number of misdemeanors were changed to payable petty misdemeanors, which means the cited person is not required to appear in court.

If the person pays a fine, the person won't have a misdemeanor record.

"No jail time, no public defender and no warrant is issued if they fail to appear,'' Ronning said.

"You can have three no insurances and the fine remains the same,'' he said. "Under the old system, you'd come in front of a judge. The judge would look at the record, you'd probably be looking at some jail time, but you'd certainly be looking at a substantial increase in fine. This is no longer the case under the payable system. No increase for repeat offenders.''

He said 48 pages of offenses are simply payable now and many "leave a bad taste in my mouth.''

Ronning said prosecutors do have the right to charge a petty misdemeanor as a misdemeanor if the police department notifies the prosecutor that the individual has had three prior violations of the statute.

"But that relies on the officer catching that at the time and they may or may not catch the fact that the individual has three prior (driving after revocations) or no insurance or whatever it may be,'' Ronning said.

Petty misdemeanors are not considered a crime, but are considered a civil offense. There is no jail time and the maximum fine is $300. In 2009, Ronning was involved in 14 petty misdemeanor court trials -- in which the defendant pleaded not guilty, compared with 21 in 2008 and 22 in 2007.

Of those in 2009, 13 were traffic matters and the 14th was an attempt to take waterfowl out of season, which occurred at Robbins Island and was seen by a conservation officer who ticketed the person.

Ronning said the case "was a first for me in more than 35 years of prosecuting for the city to have a waterfowl violation to be prosecuted in the city.''

Ronning's office opened 311 misdemeanor files in 2009 compared with 306 in 2008 and 380 in 2007.

The top five misdemeanors in 2009 were:

? Assault -- 55 compared to 36 in 2008, 46 in 2007 and 70 in 2006.

? No insurance -- 23 compared with 36 in 2008, 56 in 2007 and 75 in 2006.

? Theft and worthless check -- 54 compared with 76 in 2008, 39 in 2007 and 46 in 2006.

? First offense driving while impaired -- 30 compared with 15 in 2008, 22 in 2007 and 28 in 2006.

? Zoning violations -- 22 compared with 1 in 2008, 4 in 2007 and 1 in 2006. Ronning said zoning violations increased substantially due to saturation enforcement of the exterior maintenance ordinance at the two mobile home parks.

Gross misdemeanors, in which the maximum penalty is one year in jail and a $3,000 fine, hit a record in 2009 with 119 formal complaints compared with 96 in 2008, 116 in 2007 and 111 in 2006.

The top five gross misdemeanor cases were:

? DWI -- 65 compared with 55 in 2008, 69 in 2007 and 47 in 2006.

? Driving after cancellation -- 14 compared with 13 in 2008, 14 in 2007 and 19 in 2006.

? Theft (more than $500 but less than $1,000 in value) -- 6 compared with 8 in 2008, 4 in 2007 and 9 in 2006.

? No insurance -- 2 compared with 2 in 2008, 3 in 2007 and 6 in 2006.

? School bus stop arm violation -- 24 compared with 19 in 2008, 20 in 2007 and 29 in 2006. Ronning said he thinks the number of violations would drop considerably if Minnesota prohibited cell phone use while driving.

"I don't keep a record of how many of the school bus stop arm violations are a result of the driver using a cell phone, but a significant number are,'' he said. "They are preoccupied with their phone or texting or whatever they're doing with their cell phone and, believe it or not, they can't see a school bus with flashing red lights on.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150