Monday, February 15, 2010
The Clerk Says There's Probable Cause to Throw Yo Ass In Jail, That's Good Enough for Ohio
According to a report at the Cincinnati Enquirer website you can get your ass arrested in Ohio, and hundreds in Hamilton County, Ohio, have--on the mere signature of a clerk of courts. Apparently some places in Ohio have disposed of that "leetle detail" of an arrest warrant issued by a Judge of competent jurisdiction! The shocking expose by Dan Horn follows:
Police in Hamilton County have arrested hundreds of people in the past year because of a criminal complaint system that the county's top prosecutor says is bad public policy and some judges say violates Ohio law. The system has allowed court clerks - rather than prosecutors or judges - to approve and issue arrest warrants based on complaints from private citizens. Those complaints have sent people to jail for domestic violence, theft and other misdemeanor offenses despite a 2006 Ohio law that requires a judge or prosecutor to review complaints before someone is arrested.
Some law enforcement officials say the lack of a review led to weak criminal cases that are more likely to be thrown out of court and to abuses by people looking to settle personal scores. In some cases, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said, people could end up in jail and be forced to defend themselves in court against 'baseless charges.'
'You don't know if they have an ax to grind or if it's a neighborhood squabble, and then somebody gets arrested for it,' Deters said. 'My feeling is, before someone is subjected to a physical arrest, someone in law enforcement should look at it and sign off on it.' Officials at the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts office, which issues the arrest warrants, say they changed their policy on the complaints Jan. 14, a move they say came after months of discussion and about one week after The Enquirer requested public records about the system. They say the previous warrant policy, which had been in place for at least a decade, was legal. But they now will require a judge or prosecutor to sign off on the complaints before a warrant is issued.
'This is just better procedure,' said John Williams, the county's deputy clerk. 'We want cases that are appropriately investigated to be filed with this office. It all relates back to having some level of investigation before it comes to us.'
An Enquirer review of the clerk's records shows that hundreds of cases were filed under the old system in the past six months, and that dozens of them are still pending in Hamilton County Municipal Court. Several municipal court judges have thrown out charges based on citizen complaints after concluding they violate the 2006 law that requires a prosecutor, judge or magistrate to review them. The purpose of the law is to ensure 'probable cause' exists to justify an arrest and there is enough evidence to go ahead with criminal prosecution.
'The law was changed so private citizens couldn't cause a person to be arrested without a proper review,' said Municipal Court Judge Brad Greenberg. 'Absolutely, it concerns me. Your concern is that someone has been charged or arrested with a crime and there is no basis for it.'
Christo Lassiter, a University of Cincinnati law professor, said that happened to him in 2008 when he spent several hours on Thanksgiving Day in jail because his ex-girlfriend, Devon Dullaghan, filed a citizen complaint that accused him of violating their child-custody agreement.Dullaghan said she filed the complaint because Lassiter violated the agreement many times and she felt she had no other choice. Lassiter blamed Dullaghan for the dispute and said the 'interference with custody' charge should never have been filed because he has custody of their 3-year-old daughter. But because there was no review by a judge or a magistrate, he said, none of that information came out until he faced a criminal trial that threatened his reputation and career. 'In this system, until you get to trial, you have no way to get anyone to say, 'Let's take a look at this.' It's ridiculous,' said Lassiter, who last month sued the clerk's office and other county officials over the citizen complaint system. 'Any citizen who has a personal gripe could get an arrest warrant.' Greenberg, the judge in Lassiter's case, dismissed the charge last year after concluding it was without merit. 'I find absolutely no shred of evidence of any criminal behavior here,' Greenberg said at the time. 'In fact, I think it's outrageous that the criminal justice system would be used as a weapon between parents in a custody dispute.'
'Not a lot of evidence' As in Lassiter's case, most citizen complaints filed with the clerk's office start with a 'citizen referral' from a police officer.
Referrals, once widely used throughout the county, gave police another option when dealing with a citizen who complained about being the victim of a misdemeanor crime. If the officer did not witness the alleged crime and didn't have enough evidence to make an arrest, he or she could refer the person to the clerk's office to fill out a complaint. Cases typically involved feuding neighbors or couples accusing each other of harassment, petty theft, custody violations or vandalism. 'Officers get called to a lot of this stuff,' said Steve Barnett, spokesman for Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis, whose deputies stopped handing out citizen referrals last year. 'It's he said/she said. There's not a lot of evidence'"
Wow, talk about practicing law without a license, court clerks are NOT LAWYERS! How in God's name is the authority to issue arrest warrants being issued on the legal determination of "probable cause by court clerks?" Has Ohio lost it's collective mind? Once again we are at that intersection of personal liberty and "small law," that seems so trivial but underlies the respect that citizens in their local communities have for the jsutice system and police.
Uh, Supreme Court of Ohio, here's one for you.