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Dispute may lead to changes in court scheduling

Staff Writer

An overcrowded courthouse has been a Lincoln County issue for years, but it took a recent disagreement between a judge and the sheriff to prompt a serious discussion of the county’s heavy daily case load and chaotic scheduling process.
On July 31, Judge K. Dean Black took time in court to address officers about the day’s overcrowded docket.
According to a deputy who was in court that day, and who wished to remain unidentified, Black scolded them for 10 minutes about the day’s voluminous case load and high number of officers present.
“He had a tone in his voice,” the officer said. “It was very uncomfortable to sit in there. It was degrading and disrespectful.”
Once Sheriff David Carpenter heard about of the incident, he emailed every deputy a memo, calling Black’s behavior demeaning and an “embarrassment.”
“If this mockery should occur again,” he told officers in the email, “I would exit the courtroom to the hallway until the poor, pitiful behavior is completed.”
Carpenter explained that he was mainly trying to defend the hard work of his officers.
He prompted deputies to continue arresting offenders and overloading the court system, blaming scheduling issues on judges’ frequent case continuances.
Black, who said he learned about the memo two days after the incident, felt officers “put a different spin” on his words.
“I’m not the shouter,” he said. “I’m not the Judge Judy.”
He detailed his remarks that day.
“I looked up and had 12 to 15 officers in the courtroom, plus everyone was sitting shoulder-to-shoulder — packed in — and I said, ‘We have too many in here today for the fire code,’” he said.
Black added that he ended his short speech by suggesting the Deputy Courtroom Clerk, Debbie George, reschedule some of the day’s cases.
George defended the judge’s words, stating they weren’t belittling in her opinion.
“If he (Black) thought they (officers) were going to take it like that, he wouldn’t have said it,” she said.
Frustration levels often run high in a frequently overcrowded courtroom, George noted.
Black agreed with the clerk.
“When you add more people, it just makes everything more stressful,” he said.
Black dispelled the myth that judges alone control the docket and said that cases have to be arranged around officers’ schedules.
“I get irritated with the idea that everyone thinks the judge runs the court,” he said. “I don’t do the calendar or set the cases. It takes cooperation for the court to work right.”
Chief District (27B) Court Judge Larry Wilson has similarly asked for Lincoln County court dates to be moved around, but Black said the issue “keeps popping back up.”
With more than 260 cases listed on the court calendar the day the judge addressed the docket’s jam-packed state, not including additional cases that remained unlisted, Black said, the courtroom exceeded the fire code’s maximum occupancy.
According to Lincoln County Fire Marshal Mike Futrell, each of the three courtrooms maintains a maximum occupancy of between 160 and 180 people.
While the fire official investigates every report of a fire code violation at the courthouse, ordering judges and court officials to find additional rooms to house people when the code has been broken, he said most calls come midway through the day when a majority of cases have already been heard.
“We can’t really verify how many (people) were there that day for court,” he said.
Lincolnton Fire Marshal Patrick King, who often works with Futrell’s office, said his agency has not had any recent calls about the courthouse breaking fire code but that the two local fire leaders will be monitoring the situation in the future.
“We may have a meeting with all parties involved,” King said.
Carpenter said he is open to having court every day of the week as a solution to overpopulation.
While the load varies each day, he said most judges and court officials like to have between 100 and 150 cases but that he’s heard of as many as 750 people piling into the courthouse in one day.
Currently, only five district court judges hear cases in Lincoln and Cleveland, the two counties that comprise District 27B.
Black additionally responded to Carpenter’s suggestions in the memo that he arrives late to court, stating he may not be in the courtroom right at 8:30 a.m. but is working on court cases all morning.
“I wasn’t sitting across the street drinking coffee or anything,” Black said. “I don’t want the public to get the wrong impression.”
He said often times he waits for a prosecutor to process the cases and bailiffs to usher individuals into the courtroom before he steps in.
On the day in question, Black spent time using the video arraignment system to review jail cases from the previous night in order to save deputies’ time and energy transporting inmates to and from the detention facility.
The overcrowding issue has also reached the desk of District Attorney Rick Shaffer, who noted his office has frequently worked with Carpenter and judges to resolve the mammoth predicament, one that can only be solved through management of a variety of variables and issues — a balance difficult to achieve.
After reviewing the tone and nature of the judge’s comments in last month’s incident, Shaffer determined that individuals in the courtroom each perceived the matter differently. He said the last thing he wants is to put himself and his office in the middle of the situation.
He did reassure the community that Carpenter and Black alike just want to serve the county and the court in the best way possible.
Shaffer felt confident the sheriff-judge “dispute” could result in positive changes for the county court system.
“Perhaps there will be a positive result as it will bring the (overcrowding) issue to a point of high priority so that we can attempt to improve the efficiency of the system for the betterment of all,” he said.
While scheduling is technically the responsibility of the District Attorney’s Office, Shaffer said his office has little input in charging decisions and therefore has little involvement in the cases scheduled.
“Even if it is a situation where we know about a particular case ahead of time,” Shaffer said, “we do not have information about the other cases on the docket. Scheduling court dates by using assigned officer court dates is the only way to ensure that officers are able to be on the road or…have time off.”
The district attorney reiterated the importance of everyone’s responsibilities involved in the court process, from a judge’s interest in properly handling a docket within an allotted time frame to the sheriff’s desire to keep each officer’s schedule balanced with patrol time, court time and family time.

Below is District Attorney Rick Shaffer’s email to the Times-News:

“To the extent I have looked into the matter, it appears that the tone and nature of Judge Black’s comments in court was perceived differently by the various individuals who heard them.  Given that fact, I decline to put my office in the middle of the conflict.  I have the highest degree of respect for both Sheriff Carpenter and Judge Black and have worked with both of them for practically my entire career of 26 years as a prosecutor.  I have no doubt both men want to serve Lincoln County and have the best interest of the courty at heart.

However, I will say that there is a scheduling problem that my office, the Sheriff and the Judges continuously try to resolve.

The officers are doing their jobs and charging those who break the law.  When they make charging decisions, the last thing they should or would think about is how that arrest is going to affect the Court schedule.  That being said they have an interest in a system that does not involve them sitting in a courtroom for most of a day for a few cases, particularly if there is insufficient time to resolve the cases.

The Sheriff has to balance keeping his officers on the road protecting the public with the competing requirements that they appear in court to testify and that the officers  have a life outside of their jobs.  Given the fact that there has to be a law enforcement presence in the community every hour of every day, scheduling officers with different shifts is a difficult task.  There are also factors beyond law enforcement’s control such as attorney conflicts, witness conflicts, whether a case is for a trial or a plea, length of trials or court hearings, etc.

The Judge is interested in presiding over a court docket that can reasonably be handled in the allotted time.  There are days when there are way too many cases on a calendar to handle and the courtroom is packed with people to the point it is overcapcity.  As a result many cases do not get reached.  I know some people say they don’t care because the people there committed crimes; however, this attitude ignores the fact that some of those present are witnesses and victims of crime as well as disregarding a presumption of innocence for those charged  On the other hand, there are days when there are fewer cases and the docket is completed early in the day.  The goal is to achieve a system that balances out the case load.  Unfortunately, there are so many variables and issues that affect the cases that this balance is often diffiuclt to reach.

I do feel compelled to say that perception is not necessary reality when it comes to whether a judge is “working” simply because he is not in a courtroom.  They are often engaged in conferences with attorneys about matters on a docket and those conversations can save court time by eliminating issues.  In our District, Judges often wait to come into court until the prosecutor has had an opportunity to deal with the attorneys and set up the day.  This approach saves time for officers, witnesses, victims and attorneys.

My office has calendring responsibility under the statute.  However, in the vast majority of cases, my office has no input in charging decisions regardless of whether the charges are a result of officer action or self initiated warrants.  Therefore, we have little involvment in the cases being placed on a calendar.We generally have no notice of how defendants intend to resolve their cases until they are arraigned.  We also are not in a position to know much if anything about a case in District Court until the court date so advance scheduling is impossible.  Even if it is a situation where we know about a particular case ahead of time, we do not have information about the other cases on the docket.  Scheduling court dates by using assigned officer court dates is the only way to ensure that officers are able to be on the road or able to have time off since any other system would force them to be available for court every working day of every week.

It is unfortunate that this dispute has risen to this level but perhaps there will be a positive result as it will bring the issue to a point of high priority so that we can attempt to improve the efficiency of the system for the betterment of all.”

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