Thursday, August 28, 2014

Inattentive Driving

Don’t text and drive.  Pull over to make that cell phone call.  You have one job when you’re behind the wheel:  Driving!

I occasionally have folks in court charged with inattentive driving.  I don’t recall handling a texting while driving case, but some of the inattentive driving cases bring back sad and painful memories.  I occasionally share my story with people who appear before me.  Especially if they are charged with failing to stop at a stop sign.  Especially if they think it’s not a big deal. 

I tell them the story of Denise and Nathan.  And then I tell them the story of Sara.

It was a time before text messages, before i-phones, even before cell phones.  The year before I was appointed to be a judge, Denise was my legal secretary.  She not only was a first rate assistant, but her family and mine became quite close friends.  My daughters did summer day care for her children. 

One Sunday, Denise and her husband and their children, Nathan, age 5 and Sara, age 8, were on their way to meet family for lunch when a car blew through a stop sign and t-boned their car, killing Denise and Nathan. 

After the accident, Sara would often come from her house the two blocks away to help my wife make cookies, or decorate for holidays or just hang out. 

Three years, three months and three weeks after Denies and Nathan were killed in the car accident, Sara was riding with her cousin, passing through the very same intersection when a car blew the very same stop sign and t-boned the car, killing Sara.

There is a monument erected at that intersection now.  Two, actually, one on either side of the highway.  Each is about eight feet high, a tube about 18 inches in diameter, painted bright yellow.  At the top of each is a flashing red light, positioned right above the stop sign.  One last chance to catch the attention of a driver who may not have seen the stop sign as he approaches the intersection at highway speed.

So, when a person appears before me on charges of failing to stop at a stop sign, and they give me the impression that they don’t think it’s a big deal, I tell them about Denise and Nathan and Sara and explain why, to me, it is a big deal.

And then I assess the normal fine for driving through a stop sign.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Senior Judge

I have been “retired” now for several weeks.  I used quotation marks, as I have worked about half time since my official retirement date.  Governor Dayton has not named a replacement for the judgeship chambered in Sibley County, and I have agreed to help out as I can until the new judge can take over.  Also, I was assigned to a case in Dakota County that was to have been tried in March, but for several reasons, could not be until the end of July.  So, I have been pretty busy, doing what I had been doing the last 26 years! 

I am doing this work as a “Senior Judge”.  When I retired, I applied to the Minnesota Supreme Court to continue to work on a temporary and an as-needed basis as a retired judge.  The Chief Justice approved my application, and I am now on a list of senior judges statewide who may be called to help out when needed in a particular county.

There are several reasons why a Senior Judge may be needed:  To fill in after a judge retires and a new one is appointed is the obvious one for me now.  When I was working on the Supreme Court Technology Committee, helping with the computerized case management project in the late 90’s and into the ‘00’s, I was away from the bench for two or more days a week working on that project.   A retired judge came in and served in Court in my place so that I could help out on that important project.  Sometimes, a judge becomes quite ill and needs significant time away to recover.  In those cases, a retired judge can fill in.

Rarely, there is a case that is so sensitive that all the judges in a district have a conflict.  In those situations, a retired judge can be asked to handle a particular case. 

I am happy to help out while I can, but am a little anxious to really find out what this retirement life is all about.  I had submitted my notice of retirement to the Governor’s office well in advance, and was hopeful that my successor would be named prior to my official retirement date.  But, I am not privy to the Governor’s schedule or his priorities, and I’m sure there are good reasons that my successor has not yet been named.  However, I know I am not the only person who is anxious to find out who the new judge chambered in Sibley County will be! 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Judge's Nightmare

The entire State of Minnesota grieves the tragic and senseless murder of Mendota Heights Police Officer Scott Patrick on July 30.  Conducting a routine traffic stop, he was apparently gunned down in cold blood at close range by the driver of the vehicle. 

That driver is believed to have been Brian Fitch, now charged with first degree murder in Officer Patrick’s death. 

Fitch had appeared before a judge several months ago, facing a presumptive prison term.  The judge placed him on probation and ordered to a specific chemical dependency treatment program that I have sentenced many defendants to from my courtrooms.  It is a good, tough program that has had a decent track record with tough cases.  Fitch apparently left the program before completing it.

It is the situation all judges fear.  We are called to administer Justice, tempered with mercy.  We are aware that the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its population than any other country in the world.  A large part of our prison population are there because of drug offenses, and many authorities on the subject say it is far more cost effective to offer chemical dependency treatment than imprisonment.

In cleaning out my desk last month, I found a letter or two, thanking me for giving a particular person a second chance, and telling me that he or she has now been sober for months or years.  While these letters certainly make me feel good, I can’t help but think that it could have gone the other way:  The person who should have been sent to jail or prison for drunk driving becomes intoxicated again, is involved in an accident resulting in serious injury or death.  Then it would be me, answering my front door to find that cameras rolling and a microphone in my face asking for explanations. 

Judges can never be absolutely certain, even after a trial, that we know what happened at a particular event in the past.  We surely can’t be certain what may happen to a person in the future.  So, as all human beings, we must make the best decisions we can with the best information we have.  We hope and pray that our decision is correct.

As recent events testify, some times, tragically, they are not.

Our hearts go out to Officer Patrick’s wife and daughters, as well as to his law enforcement family from every department across the state.  All of us join in their grief and sorrow and ask that question that has no answer, at least in this life:


Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Value of Education

I will not be online Thursday, so am posting the August 7 blog early this week.

Truancy cases are sometimes very frustrating, not only for the judge, but for the county attorney, social worker, probation officer and school officials.  When the child is quite young, it’s often a symptom of more serious issues within the family.  For middle schoolers and high schoolers, it can be simply a resistance to authority or a little bit of Tom Sawyer.

In my county, the school, social services and county attorney’s office have developed a program to address truancy at different stages.  One thing happens when a minimum number of days have been missed, and at different stages, different interventions are made.  If none of them are successful, a truancy child protection petition is filed and the family comes to see me in Court.

For the older truants, I believe my job is to get them to think beyond next week or next month.  The dialogue can go something like this:

“Do you enjoy cooking French fries?  (Most of the time, they say no.)  How about sweeping floors and cleaning toilets?  Well, if you do not get a high school diploma, those are about the only kinds of jobs that are open to you.

“Don’t get me wrong, people who serve hamburgers and make beds in hotels make a good, honest, hard-earned living.  But I think you have more potential than that.  Someday, you’re going to want to get married and have a family.  When you do, you’re going to want to provide for them – make sure they have a comfortable home, enough food and be able to enjoy some of the good things in life.  You’ll be better able to provide for your family if you’re earning more than minimum wage.  And, the only way you’ll be able to get a job earning more than minimum wage is to get a high school diploma.

“Actually, you’re going to want to get more education than high school.  But, before you can go to college or vocational school, you’re going to have to have a high school education.

“I think education is so important that I am willing to order that you leave your parents’ home to be sure that you get to school.  That’s really not the worst thing in the world that can happen to you, but I’m pretty sure you’d rather stay at home with your family and hang out with your friends on the weekends.  I don’t want to order you into placement, so I hope and expect that you will go to school, and try your hardest at school, so I won’t have to make that decision.

“Good luck!”

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Next week:  Inattentive Driving.