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Dallas set to handle more misdemeanor court cases

DALLAS — Strained resources in the Polk County District Attorney's Office has prompted the city of Dallas to take back misdemeanor property crime cases.

Dallas Municipal Court Judge Ira Feitelson talks with court staff during Thursday morning’s court session. Dallas’ city court will now handle minor misdemeanor cases.

Jolene Guzman/Itemizer-Observer

Dallas Municipal Court Judge Ira Feitelson talks with court staff during Thursday morning’s court session. Dallas’ city court will now handle minor misdemeanor cases.

January 28, 2014

DALLAS — Strained resources in the Polk County District Attorney's Office has prompted the city of Dallas to take back misdemeanor property crime cases.

Starting this week, Dallas Municipal Court will handle those cases that the district attorney's office will no longer be able to prosecute.

City leaders say it was important that prosecution continue for those types of crimes committed in Dallas.

"We didn't want those misdemeanor cases to fall through the cracks," City Manager Ron Foggin said. "We wanted these cases treated judiciously and seriously."

Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton said there isn't a "no prosecution" list, and class C and D misdemeanors could be taken by his office under certain circumstances. However, he said he had to prioritize more serious crimes.

Felton had said in the past he would use alternative methods — such as diversion programs — to hold minor crime offenders accountable. However, on closer examination, he found the option would be nearly as time consuming for his prosecutors as taking cases to trial.

"I don't like making these decisions one bit," Felton said. "I would love to prosecute everything that merits prosecution. But we are just in the position that prosecutors have been reduced and (case) intake has stayed the same or increased."

Dallas Police Chief Tom Simpson said the city considered taking back the caseload — transferred to the DA's office in 2010 — for about a year, but the idea never moved forward.

That is until Polk County's public safety levy failed in November, forcing the DA's office to make decisions to reduce its workload to match available resources.

"Our county government is facing difficult times and the volume of cases the DA's office is asked to prosecute really tasks their limited resources," said Simpson, who was assigned to help oversee the transition. "It came down to a simple fact: Our DA needs to reduce the volume of cases his office prosecutes. In order to ensure even the most minor criminal cases are prosecuted — minor thefts and property crimes — our municipal court would need to handle them."

Foggin said city court staff have been visiting other municipal courts to see how other cities handle those cases.

One of those cities was Monmouth, which assigns most minor misdemeanors, along with traffic and other city code violations, to its own court.

"We are going to keep taking our minor crimes through our city court," said Monmouth Police Sgt. Matt Olafson.

Independence and Falls City are not considering taking on minor misdemeanor cases at this time.

Foggin said the city plans to carefully monitor the impact the additional cases have on resources and court staff, but doesn't anticipate having to change its contract with Municipal Court Judge Ira Feitelson. Foggin said the city is projected to break even on misdemeanor property crimes, but the costs will be tracked closely.

"It may require hiring more court staff, and that is something that we are going to have to pay very close attention to," he said.

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