Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Board wants judge to resign

by Jade Bolack

December 12, 2013

Peterson
Rasmussen
Johnson
WALWORTH — The Walworth Village Board requested the municipal judge resign at the Dec. 9 board meeting.

After discussing issues with the municipal court, including the limited amount of collected fines, the board unanimously agreed to ask for Judge John "Jay" Peterson's resignation.

Peterson was at the meeting, but he didn't directly answer the board after the resolution was approved.

Trustee Kent Johnson said it was in the best interest of the village to find a judge who agreed with the community's philosophy.

President David Rasmussen said Peterson's discretion as judge was not working for public safety in the village.

"You've served as an advocate for people coming in (to court) rather than as an advocate for public safety," he said to Peterson. "You've taken the position that (the village board) is all about money. That's what you said, and that's what your newspaper article said. It's not what the budget said."

Rasmussen said he frequently hears residents complain about the municipal court.

"I think you're being very credulous," Rasmussen said. "You're setting them (defendants) up to tell you a story. You make the village look naive. I have no problem saying that to you, I've been waiting a long time."

Peterson argued with Rasmussen.

"I think you're wrong, dead wrong, absolutely wrong with what you're saying," Peterson said.

Peterson said he had to stay within statutory limits on collecting fines from indigent defendants.

During the November court date, Peterson saw 26 defendants, and they all said they were unable to pay the fines.

"None of them were ordered to pay," Peterson said. "They gave me testimony. Two of them came with paperwork (to prove their lack of income)."

Rasmussen asked if the defendants were under oath when they said they couldn't pay.

Peterson said they weren't under oath.

"It's embarrassing enough for people to come in and tell their woes to me," Peterson said. "They still have to pay their fine. I just can't enforce collection on it."

Rasmussen said Walworth is known as "soft" on traffic citations.

"The real issue is that people are concerned that your view of public safety differs from ours," Rasmussen said. "I think there's an impression that the definition of indigency in Walworth is a lot looser than a lot of other communities. There's no investigation, there's no question of people. They're in and out very quickly from court."

Indigency and guilt

Police Chief Chris Severt said all the people who are questioned about if they can pay have already been found guilty.

"He's not questioning whether these people are guilty," he said. "These people have already been found guilty, and they've been assessed a penalty. He's choosing not to collect (the fines)."

Rasmussen said the question isn't about justice anymore.

"Justice isn't about whether they're indigent," he said. "You've substituted your judgment for that of the community. People are given a free pass to come through Walworth. I don't think you're doing a benefit to the community. I think the way in which you handle it is inaccurate. I think you have discretion and you're playing it the way you like to play it."

Peterson said the community backs him.

"I believe the community would want me to stay within the my statutory limits," he said.

Severt said Peterson doesn't hold indigency hearings, only good cause hearings and no one has to prove his or her inability to pay.

"To have an indigency hearing, other courts will have forms that people have to fill out to show they can't afford (to pay)," Severt said. "I don't think we've ever had an indigency hearing. You do not require them to prove indigency."

Peterson called the different between the types of hearings "semantics."

"I believe it's inaccurate," Severt said. "I don't think anybody here would have a problem with people who can't pay if they can in fact prove they are indigent."

Rasmussen said the Walworth court doesn't hold indigency hearings because Peterson is in a hurry to get out of each court session.

"You're in a hurry to get out as quickly as you can," Rasmussen said. "You believed that all 26 people were indigent and couldn't start paying something, that doesn't indicate that your standards are strong. The impression is that indigency is being broadly defined and you're not really spending the time to find out if these people are actually indigent."

Peterson questioned the goal of the court for the village.

"You're telling me the bottom line is the dollars and cents to you, correct?" Peterson said. "That is my job to determine if they're telling the truth. That's the finding I make every single time. A lot of people are out of work, and a lot of people receive government assistance."

Peterson said state statutes prohibit collecting municipal fines if the defendant is on any type of government aid.

Empty clerk position

Court Clerk Ellen Reddy served her last day in office Dec. 10. Peterson suggested a replacement for her, but the village board tabled any discussion on the replacement hiring.

Trustee Dennis Vanderbloemen suggested Peterson find someone with clerk experience. He said the board would be more likely to approve a hire.

Municipal court can't be held until the position is filled.

Rasmussen asked Peterson to speak with Reddy to potentially extend her employment for the court until a replacement can be found.

Other court news

Municipal judges have authority to change the way the court is run in communities, and Peterson has ordered the village to separate the court clerk office from the police department, Johnson said.

Currently, the clerk is in the police department office and uses the same phone line.

Severt said Peterson requested the two entities be separated.

"Jay sent that letter out changing the process of how he wants things done, which will change how we do our process in the police department," Severt said. "He's got to get everything out of the police office, and he's going to put it back in the building inspector's office or his changing room. His feeling is that the police department and the court (are) too close. The state recommends the separation, but they said the way we had it set up was fine."

Peterson has also ordered that the police no longer handle pretrial discussions with defendants.

The current practice is for police to talk to defendants and negotiate a settlement before the issue has to go to court.

Peterson ordered that all defendants must meet with the village attorney for those negotiations.

"He's saying it's an illegal practice," Severt said. "The circuit court, the state patrol, those officers all do the pretrials. Then it goes on to the attorney for a court trial or a hearing."

Severt said the police department has parameters they follow during pretrials.

"Most pretrials, they call and say they don't want the ticket on their record," he said. "We ask why they don't and typically it's for insurance cost reasons. We tell them the only way to keep it off their record is to dismiss the traffic citation and make it an ordinance violation. It costs more money. The minimum ordinance is around $200."

Severt said he tells the defendants that it's probably not worth the extra citation cost, from an $80 traffic ticket to a $200 ordinance ticket, to save on insurance.

"I'm not giving legal advice," he said. "I'm giving financial advice (because) $200 is a lot for a ticket. We try to work with them."

The village has about 95 tickets scheduled for each court date, Severt said. The police department typically handles about 60 before the trial.

Severt said Peterson was responding to previous discussions the board has had about the municipal court and wants to make all these changes now.

"He's upset that they're questioning the way he's doing things," Severt said. "I don't think Jay looks at the big picture as far as his responsibility to the whole community."

Johnson said the village didn't have the funds to pay an attorney to be at every pretrial discussion.