Thursday, December 26, 2013

Home for the Holidays

No matter what your religion, at this time of year, a person wants to with family. “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays”, goes one popular seasonal tune.

There are some people who just can’t be home for the holidays, though.  One Christmas Eve, I was able to stop by the local Legion Club for a cup of coffee before heading over to the courthouse.  By good fortune, I sat across the table from one of the Greatest Generation:  Roy Kuhlman had flown a B-24 over Europe in World War Two.  I asked Roy if he’d ever been away from home over the holidays.  He told me he’d actually been a prisoner of war, after his bomber had been shot down in 1944.

Roy passed away this year.  I think about him, and all those who have served in the armed forces of this country, who have missed holidays, birthdays and more in service of our country.

I also have taken calls from law enforcement over the holidays.  They, too, are called away from their families on these important holidays.  They are often busy on those days, too.  I am told by folks in the liquor business that Christmas Eve has been the biggest day for sale of alcohol through the whole year.  This may result in driving under the influence, or alcohol-facilitated domestic abuse charges.  We all hope for a quiet night for our public servants, but often, it is a busy night, away from their families. 

Activity in court is normally lower this week.  The cases we do have, however, are often difficult and often sad.  Holiday parenting time disputes can arise at the 11th hour.  (Starting in October, I have a policy to ask folks in court on any child custody matter if they have the holidays worked out.  If not, we get it done right then.  The last-minute motions are just too hard on the parties, not to mention the children.  They also put a lot of pressure on a judge to make a snap decision on a most-important issue.)

As most of us gather with family and friends this holiday, let’s remember those who cannot be home for the holidays, because they are serving us and keeping us safe.

Merry Christmas.

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Next week:  Resolutions

Friday, December 20, 2013

Intercontinental Televison

Last week, I wrote about the very beginning of our use of interactive television to conduct court hearings.  Since those early days, hardly a week goes by when I do not conduct a bail hearing or other matter over ITV.

We have conducted dozens of review hearings for persons in state hospitals by ITV.  Children who have been placed out of home are able to participate by ITV without having to travel hours each way by unmarked squad car.  (We will appoint an attorney at the person’s location to sit with him or her, while the original attorney is in Gaylord so that the person can consult with counsel immediately and at the same time have the original attorney present who is well aware of the history of the case.)

A side benefit is that often family members will appear at the Courthouse to observe or participate in the hearing.  If there are a few minutes before the next hearing is to be called (or sometimes, even if there are not), the Court staff will leave the courtroom and allow the family a little time to visit.

The most unique use of the ITV equipment, however, came at the end of a very sad case.  A sixteen-year-old girl from Spain came to our community as a foreign exchange student.  The father of her host family was alleged to have sexually molested her.  She and her parents returned from Spain so that the victim could testify at the trial.  The host family father was found guilty by the jury and a sentencing hearing was set for several weeks later.

The victim and her parents had neither the time nor the money to come back to Minnesota for the sentencing hearing, though they were most interested to learn what happened.  The Sibley County Attorney’s Victim / Witness Coordinator and the Court Administrator were able to arrange for an interactive television connection between the Courthouse in Gaylord and a government office in Madrid, Spain.  The sentencing hearing was scheduled at 9:00 a.m. Minnesota time to accommodate an eight hour time difference with Spain.

Court staff tested the system the day before, and the hearing went off flawlessly.  The video was crystal clear and the audio was perfect – not even the delay that we sometimes see when the network anchorman talks to the foreign correspondent on television.

The victim and her family were able to observe and to participate (though they declined to make a statement) at the sentencing hearing.  We were most pleased and proud that we were able to make that happen!

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Next week:  Home for the Holidays

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cameras in the Courtroom

A person is arrested in Sibley County and needs to appear before a judge within 36 hours.  I am assigned to another county – there is no judge in Sibley County within the time required.   In the “olden days”, when I was county attorney, I’d get into my car and drive to Glencoe.  The Sheriff would have the defendant transported there, too, to appear before the judge.  The hearing would take maybe 10 or 15 minutes.

Another person has attempted suicide and is hospitalized.  A petition for judicial commitment is filed, to require the person to obtain mental health treatment at a state hospital.  A preliminary hearing is required for the judge to consider whether there is enough evidence to continue with the commitment proceedings.  The patient is either transported the nearly two hours, one way, to the Sibley County Courthouse for the 15 minute hearing, or the judge, attorneys and court reporter make the trip to Willmar for the hearing.  Either way, it is a lot of time, expense and hassle for all involved.

Back in about 1997, Sibley County received permission from the Minnesota Supreme Court to conduct a trial on using interactive television for commitment hearings.  We were permitted to conduct those hearings for several months and then the program would be evaluated to see if it should be continued, expanded or halted. 

We found that, as expected, we had saved time and money for the system.  What surprised us all, however, was the evaluation from the Patient Advocate at the State Hospital that the program was a great benefit to the patients themselves!  They did not have to be placed in the back seat of an unmarked squad car for the ride to the courthouse, and then back again to the hospital.  The patient could remain in the normal treatment day with a 20-minute interruption for the hearing rather than 3-4 hours away.  And, the patient was actually more focused on the hearing because it was conducted by television.

The program was approved and made available for other counties.  Soon, other hearings were being conducted by ITV. 

Now, that person who was arrested would be walked over to the Sibley County Courthouse and I or another judge would sit in front of the camera in another courthouse and conduct the hearing before the time ran out.

There are limitations to the use of television for courts.  They can be difficult for the court reporter to accurately record.  They are not very efficient for longer trials and we certainly wouldn’t use it for a commitment hearing where the patient claims to receive messages through his television.  But, they do permit a judge to be much more efficient.

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Next week:  Intercontinental Television

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dads and Drugs

            Parents may be summoned into Court because their children are in need of protection or services, either because the child has such severe issues that the parents simply cannot meet them or, more tragically, because the parents’ actions require the Court’s intervention for the child’s safety.  Some of the most difficult and tragic cases involve parents whose use of controlled substances jeopardizes their child’s safety and their relationship to their child.

            I had a case some time ago involving two young parents who were in such a situation.  The Father had a bad chemical dependency problem.  The case had been pending for several months, and Father was ordered to be drug free in order to see his son.

            At this hearing, the son, who was about 18 months old, was brought to court and as soon as he saw his Dad, he climbed into his lap, and stayed there for the entire hearing.

            I heard the reports from the social worker and the Guardian ad Litem.  I heard the statements of the attorney for the County and the attorney for each of the parents.  I then had this conversation with the Father, taken from the Court Reporter’s notes:
THE COURT:  Father, when was the last time you saw your son before today?

FATHER:  About a month and a half, two months.

THE COURT:  How can you stay away from such a beautiful child, who obviously loves you?  He doesn’t want anything more today than to sit on his daddy’s lap.  I just can’t comprehend it.  I was just visiting my grandson who is about two months younger than your son.  There is nothing better than doing just what he’s doing now – snuggling up on his daddy’s chest.  How can you not do everything in your power to let him do that?  Do these drugs have such a control over you that you love them more than you love your son?
We are at a time now where I’m going to have to make a really hard decision and that decision might be that you will never see your son again.  I don’t want to make that decision.  I don’t want to do that.  And very honestly, I won’t do it.  You’ll make the decision for me.

 Sad to say, often the drugs win.  Even with the support of the County’s resources, treatment programs and the threat of losing the right to parent or even see one’s own child is not enough to overcome the apparently irresistible pull of the pill, needle or bottle.

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Next Week:  Cameras in the Courtroom