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Published May 03 2012

Criminal cases skyrocket in Oil Patch

FARGO – Judges and other court workers are struggling to keep pace with a skyrocketing number of criminal cases filed in the booming oil-rich counties of northwestern North Dakota, officials say.

The state court system’s annual report, released this week, shows criminal filings in the Northwest Judicial District jumped by nearly one-third, from 5,581 cases to 7,390 cases, from 2010 to 2011.

And it’s only gotten busier this year in the six-county district, which includes Minot and Williston.

First-quarter figures show criminal cases are up by nearly 48 percent compared with the first three months of 2010, while traffic cases are up by almost 75 percent, said Carolyn Probst, trial court administrator for the district.

“We’re behind in a lot of areas. It’s really bogged our clerks’ offices down. Our judges are just overwhelmed with cases trying to keep up,” Probst said.

Statewide, criminal filings climbed by 8.6 percent from 2010 to 2011. Among those cases, felony filings jumped by 14.7 percent and misdemeanors rose by 9.6 percent, while infractions fell by 20.1 percent, the report shows, suggesting authorities are dealing with more serious crimes.

The Northwest Judicial District, which covers Burke, Divide, McKenzie, Mountrail, Ward and Williams counties, was the only district to post a double-digit percentage increase in criminal filings last year.

The closest was the Northeast Central Judicial District covering Grand Forks and Nelson counties, which saw a 9.95 percent increase. The Southwest Judicial District saw a 7.8 percent increase, while the East Central District, which covers Cass, Steele and Traill counties, had about 1.2 percent growth.

At the Williams County Courthouse in Williston, the clerk’s office is backlogged with cases, despite adding a temporary position that Clerk of District Court Jody Fixen said has been hard to keep filled.

“Well, I hope she’ll still be coming,” Fixen said of the latest hire. “We’ve had that before, and then we hear, ‘Nope, they got a better

job.’ ”

Fixen said the office has four full-time positions but is currently down to two clerks. One left for a job with a law firm, and another is on leave after her son died in a motorcycle crash.

The backlog has changed how the office handles case files. Instead of sorting them alphabetically, clerks now first separate the files by category. Priority goes to criminal cases, mental health matters and protection orders, while probate files and requests for certified copies – often of land records in the Oil Patch – must wait, Fixen said.

“Some of that gets put on the back burner,” she said.

In March, the office began closing to the public on Friday afternoons to give clerks time to catch up on paperwork, following the lead of county offices that started doing the same thing last year. Other counties have entertained the idea, Probst said.

Fixen said it has helped, but the cases continue to pile up when the office opens on Monday.

“Kind of a vicious circle, you know,” she said.

Finding space to process and hear the ballooning number of court cases also has become a more pressing issue, Probst said.

Williams County is remodeling the third floor of its courthouse. When finished, the project will provide two more courtrooms capable of holding trials, as well as chambers for another judge, which district officials hope the state will provide, Probst said.

“The judge’s caseload out there currently is double what any other judge’s caseload is throughout the state,” she said.

Court workers across the state took part in a workload study in March to determine appropriate staffing levels, and Fixen hopes the results will help convince state lawmakers to fund additional staff.

Officials are trying to spread the word about the need. On Tuesday, the first of four public meetings organized by Probst was held in Stanley. Legislative representatives and candidates were invited, along with county commissioners, sheriffs and state’s attorneys, she said.

A task force created by the State Bar Association has similar meetings planned in June in Bis-marck, Dickinson, Minot and Williston. Executive Director Bill Neumann said the task force wants to gather “useful, accurate information” on the impacts of energy development on all areas of the justice system – not just courts – to bring to the Legislature in 2013.

“We want to point out that infrastructure is not just roads,” he said.

Last year saw a record 2,273 law licenses issued and 186 attorneys admitted to the State Bar Association, according to the court system’s annual report. Neumann said the increase is “almost entirely” because of the energy boom in western North Dakota.

“A big chunk of it is oil and gas lawyers from places like Texas and Oklahoma and Colorado who are not going to move to North Dakota, but they want to do North Dakota work and so they want to be licensed here,” Neumann said.

Still others are lawyers from states such as Minnesota and Michigan who are having a hard time finding employment, he said.

There’s no shortage of legal work for attorneys in the Oil Patch, he said.

“They’re all so tied up with doing Oil Patch work that we have people in Williston contacting Bismarck lawyers if they’ve got family law problems,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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