Washington County sheriff threatens to sue court system over failure to arraign prisoners

Donnie Smith, Washington County sheriff
Donnie Smith, Washington County sheriff
Posted April 26, 2013, at 3:56 p.m.
Last modified April 26, 2013, at 5 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith said Friday that if the judges serving the county’s District Court don’t start arraigning prisoners in a timely fashion, he plans to sue the court system.

Smith said the state has reduced District Court hours in Machias to just three afternoons a week, and these requirements are forcing him to release some prisoners when they can’t be brought before a judge within 48 hours, as required by state law. He explained that these are pretrial prisoners who are unable to make bail or are being held without bail pending arraignment.

“We will not wait until a victim is killed because a judge thinks they are more important than the victim,” he said Friday.

Smith raised the issue of a potential lawsuit in an email sent at 11:35 p.m. Thursday to numerous news outlets, including the Bangor Daily News. Reached Friday afternoon, Mary Ann Lynch, Maine’s director of court information, said she had also seen a copy of that email but that it came as a complete surprise to her that Smith was having difficulty.

“These hours are not a change,” Lynch said. “This has been our practice statewide. There has not been a problem anywhere else in the state. We were also not aware there was a problem in Washington County.”

Lynch and Smith said that on the three days that District Court arraignments are held, paperwork must be submitted by 11:30 a.m. and arraignments are held at 1 p.m. Smith said one prisoner had to be released because the paperwork was seven minutes late.

Lynch said that Smith does have another option. If it appears a prisoner will be released because the 48-hour rule is going to expire, a justice of the peace can hold a probable cause hearing to extend that limit.

“There is a justice of the peace across the street from the sheriff’s office in Machias,” she said.

Lynch said her office will be contacting Smith and asking him to provide details of his problems.

“We’ll be happy to look into any of his concerns,” she said.

Smith said Friday morning that earlier this week he was forced for the fourth time this month to release a person charged with domestic violence because “the sitting judges are refusing to do the arraignments on these suspects. Tuesday we had to release for the fourth time a [domestic violence] subject because a judge flatly refused to bring the subject before them. This was not the fault of the district attorney or the arresting agency.”

Smith has been critical over the past several weeks of his inability to get prisoners before a judge in a timely fashion. In a recent interview about a proposed $12 million expansion of the Washington County courthouse, which would include two new district courtrooms, Smith said more courtrooms are not needed because the existing district courtroom is often empty because no judge is assigned.

“We aren’t using what we have now,” he said, calling the courtroom schedule “a management crisis.”

Judge John V. Romei, who presides over District Court in Machias and is set to retire next month, would not comment on the scheduling situation.

Smith said that he sometimes is able to use videoconferencing with judges from courts in Calais and Ellsworth to arraign prisoners. But again, he has trouble getting those done during the regular scheduled court hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

“I have held people here [in jail] longer waiting for trial than they would have served if they pled guilty,” he said.

Smith also said that he has been forced to hold mentally ill prisoners for three to four months after conviction before getting them in front of a judge to seek transfers for treatment at a mental health facility.

Yet Smith contends that it is the pretrial prisoners that cause him the greatest difficulty.

“Last month I had 25 out of 40 prisoners that I was holding pre-trial and no one was able to get into a courtroom,” he said. “We are theoretically holding innocent people.”

The backlog of cases is so dire, he said, that he was recently forced because of the 48-hour limit to release six pretrial prisoners — and he considers dangerous at least two who were being held on domestic violence charges.

“One held a gun to his girlfriend’s head and pulled the trigger. There was no round in the chamber,” he said. “And I had to let them go. Another Tased his pregnant girlfriend. Another was charged with six counts of stalking and I couldn’t get him in front of a judge.”

Releasing a fourth prisoner on Tuesday was Smith’s last straw, he said.

“I have contacted the governor’s office and am waiting for response,” Smith said Friday. “If need be the sheriff’s office will take action against the court.”

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary, said Friday she would check with Gov. Paul LePage’s office staff to see if he had been notified.

Meanwhile, Smith said he intends to bring all pretrial prisoners scheduled for arraignment on any given day into the courtroom “and we’ll stand there with them until the judge notices us. I understand the logistics of this but the system is the only protection that the victim has.”

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