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Published September 01 2013

Fargo sees drop in police missing court

FARGO – For police, sometimes writing a ticket is just the start.

Officers often are summoned to court to defend their work, even in cases involving traffic offenses and other relatively minor violations. But as personnel records obtained by The Forum through an open records request illustrate, they don’t always show up.

From 2008 to 2012, Fargo police were disciplined for missing 32 court appearances, including hearings and trials in Fargo Municipal Court and administrative hearings held by the North Dakota Department of Transportation related to driving privileges.

Skipping out on a subpoena, however, appears to be tailing off among Fargo officers, with just one such case noted in 2012 disciplinary records.

Traffic cases are usually dismissed if the officer who witnessed the alleged violation misses the court hearing, Assistant City Attorney Jason Loos said. Criminal cases are less likely to be dismissed.

“We have literally hundreds of cases a month, so it actually doesn’t happen very often,” Loos said of officers missing hearings.

Sgt. Mike Mitchell, who heads the Fargo Police Department’s internal affairs office, said reasons for missing court hearings vary based on the experience of the officer.

Newer officers are challenged more frequently by defense attorneys, sometimes appearing in court twice a week, and it can be hard for them to keep track of hearing dates, which may get rescheduled or canceled. Officers who work overnight shifts have a tougher task in appearing for daytime hearings, Mitchell said.

“All of these different things happen, so it’s difficult for them,” he said. “However, the chief and the administration have a very high standard when it comes to those incidents.”

Complaints automatic

When officers miss hearings, city prosecutors notify Mitchell in the Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards.

Mitchell automatically opens a complaint and investigates why the officer missed the hearing. Sustained complaints usually result in a letter of consultation for the first violation and a letter of reprimand for the second violation within a year. Suspension is the next step in the progressive discipline process, but Mitchell said it usually doesn’t come to that.

“We’ve had some get close,” he said.

Of the 32 disciplinary cases since 2008, 23 resulted in a letter of consultation, six resulted in letters of reprimand and three resulted in verbal consultations. One complaint about a missed hearing was determined to be unfounded, and another complaint wasn’t sustained.

Most of the disciplinary records didn’t specify whether the case had been dismissed. Three records noted the case had been dismissed. None of the records obtained by The Forum identify the criminal cases or administrative hearings that prompted the subpoenas for testimony.

Twenty-three of Fargo’s missed court dates happened in 2008 and 2009. The number dropped off after that, with five in 2010, six in 2011 and only one in 2012. Mitchell and Loos said that’s likely due in part to the switch in late 2011 from paper subpoenas to electronic subpoenas.

The digital versions show up in officers’ email inboxes, and officers are able to sync their smartphones to their city email accounts to set up alerts for upcoming court dates, Mitchell said.

Still, he cited Police Chief Keith Ternes’ strict stance on the issue as a key reason for the decline in missed court appearances.

“If they miss one, they know they’re going to be in my office. They know they’re going to be held accountable. So they’re being more conscientious about keeping track of them,” he said.

Rare for other agencies

Other metro-area law enforcement agencies didn’t have nearly as many disciplinary cases involving officers missing court since 2008.

Records from Cass County, Clay County, Dilworth and Moorhead included no such cases since 2008, though Dilworth’s response to The Forum’s records request consisted of only four complaints, all of them unfounded and the oldest from Nov. 15, 2012. City Administrator Ken Parke said in an email that Police Chief Josh Ebert, who started last year, “went through all the files and what he found is what you received so I’m assuming that is all there is.”

West Fargo had three instances of officers missing administrative hearings, which resulted in two counseling sessions and a reprimand.

In West Fargo, municipal court and police headquarters share the same building, and Assistant Chief Mike Reitan said he couldn’t recall an officer missing a court hearing. The state Department of Transportation notifies the Police Department if an officer misses an administrative hearing.

“We follow up with the officer because we feel it’s important that they attend those,” he said.

Minnesota doesn’t have municipal courts, so Moorhead officers appear at hearings in Clay County District Court.

Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said redundancies in his department’s notification process “makes it almost impossible for the officer not to get an updated request to be in court.”

There were no disciplinary cases involving Cass or Clay county deputies since 2008.

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