LAKE OSWEGO COURT BALANCES JUSTICE, FLEXIBILITY
Willingness to tackle criminal cases and city's relatively small size create a system uniquely able to give extra attention to every defendant
When former West Linn High teacher Jonathan Peachey pleaded guilty to sex-abuse charges earlier this month, he wasnt standing before a Clackamas County Circuit Court judge in Oregon City. Neither was former Oregon Cat Project Owner Dana Lionel when she agreed to plead no contest in 2015 to an animal neglect charge.
In both cases and in dozens more like them every year the defendants instead were in City Hall on A Avenue, where a folding wall is extended across the middle of council chambers every Wednesday, audience chairs are turned around and Lake Oswego Municipal Court is called to order.
There, before Judge W. Bruce Shepley, the City spends the morning processing minor violations such as traffic tickets, then moves on to criminal cases in the afternoon.
And because of that situation, says City Prosecutor Jerry Seeberger, were uniquely able to tailor what we do through the criminal justice process to meet the needs of the community.
Its not uncommon for a municipal court to handle criminal violations, although many smaller courts lack the resources to do so. Still, the Lake Oswego court has a feature that sets it apart even from the other city courts that do prosecute criminal cases: Its a court of record. That means that every court session is recorded, documented and time-indexed. It also means that its decisions have a bit more finality.
In most municipal courts in Oregon, verdicts can be appealed to the circuit court. When that happens, the case essentially starts over with a new trial at the circuit level, because the lack of a record in the lower court makes it impossible to officially verify whether defendants were given their full due-process rights.
Its not cost-effective, says Shepley, a former prosecutor and public defender who is voted in by the City Council to serve as the municipal court judge. Why should someone get two separate chances with two separate trials?
According to Seeberger, many municipal courts prosecute some misdemeanor criminal offenses, but they often lack the resources to take every case. And certain types of misdemeanor cases are automatically passed up to the circuit court DUI cases being the biggest example.
But the Lake Oswego court is large enough to take nearly all misdemeanors, including DUI cases, which are the most frequent type of misdemeanor offenses by far. According to records supplied by Lake Oswego City Attorney David Powell, the local court prosecuted 266 misdemeanor cases during the 2014-2015 fiscal year; of those, 109 were DUI cases. An additional 49 were driving-related offenses, such as reckless driving or driving while suspended.
At the Lake Oswego court as well as the five other Oregon municipal courts of record the verdicts carry the same weight as a circuit court decision. Any appeals must be taken directly to the state Court of Appeals, which is the next level above the circuit courts.
Every single municipal court that does a full spectrum of misdemeanors is a court of record, Seeberger says.
Lake Oswegos court became a court of record in 2004, after the state Legislature passed a bill that created a process to allow municipal courts to make the change. Powell says Lake Oswego and Florence were the first two cities to take advantage of the new law. Four other cities have followed suit in the past 10 years: St. Helens, Beaverton, West Linn and, most recently, Milwaukie.
Powell says the change wasnt all that drastic at the time, because the City already prosecuted criminal violations and already followed the procedures of a court of record. He says the biggest change was an upgrade to the courts recording system.
Shepley, who maintains his own criminal defense practice in Oregon City, began serving as Lake Oswegos judge at approximately the same time. He also says the change was minimal.
It makes you have to dot your is and cross your ts a little more, he says.
Shepley says the court-of-record status is significant, but its not the only thing that makes the Lake Oswego court unique. He says the courts willingness to tackle criminal cases, coupled with the relatively small size of Lake Oswego, allows for a degree of flexibility that isnt always possible elsewhere.
We can do things here that they cannot or wont do in larger courts, he says. In one interest, you want to treat people in similar circumstances the same. But by the same token, people being sentenced are individuals, and their behavior should be taken into account. Here, were able to focus on the individual more than, say, at a circuit court.
Seeberger agrees, and says one of the advantages of taking on misdemeanor cases at the municipal court level is that it gives the City a chance to more frequently use deferred sentencing agreements. In those instances, the City will pledge to defer a charge against a defendant for a specific period of time often a year.
In exchange, the defendant pleads guilty or no contest and agrees to complete a series of remedial steps outlined by the City, such as fines, community service or treatment programs. If the defendant successfully completes the agreement and commits no new crimes during the allotted time, then the charge is dismissed.
The City has a large amount of discretion in such cases, and can assign remedial steps that it considers to be most appropriate for the circumstances of the case. In Dana Lionels case, the former owner of the Oregon Cat Project was able to avoid significant jail time.
Lionel was originally charged with two crimes: animal neglect and animal abandonment. If she had been convicted on both counts, she could have faced up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine. But in exchange for her no-contest plea, the City agreed to drop one of those charges.
Under the terms of her deferred sentence for a Class B misdemeanor, Lionel had to pay about $700 in fines and fees and agreed not to acquire any new cats during a 12-month probation period. She was also able to keep the estimated 30 cats in her care, as long as a sheriffs deputy was allowed to verify the animals condition.
If Lionel followed those guidelines, Seberger said at the sentencing hearing in March 2015, there would be no conviction on her record.
I dont consider her malicious or willful, he told The Review at the time. It just got over her head. This lady has no criminal history whatsoever, and I think in her mind, she got involved in this cat rescue and it got out of hand. Thats why we dealt with it the way we did.
Seeberger says he is frequently able to employ deferred sentencing agreements when dealing with younger offenders, who he says may not fully appreciate the consequences of their actions. The agreement gives them a chance to avoid having to live with a criminal record.
We view it as an opportunity for people to redeem themselves from behavior that maybe a lot of people have done, but they got caught for it, says Seeberger. It avoids someone, because of the excesses of youth, mortgaging their future.
The balance achieved by having a local, small-size court of record helps to set the Lake Oswego court apart from other municipal courts in the state. But in spite of the unusual case docket and extra layer of certification, Seeberger and Shepley both say the Lake Oswego Municipal Courts greatest asset is the supportive and dedicated staff employed by the City and the court.
Lake Oswego is very unique here because you have a very professional police department, a great city attorneys office and great
support staff, Shepley says. You dont get that kind of combination often. Theres a real desire here to do whats right.