America’s criminal justice system is set up to ensure that everyone gets his or her day in court — but the accused actually have to show up.
Lamoille County state’s attorney Todd Shove is leaning on police and courts to make sure they do — he’s asking the presiding judge to issue judicial summonses or arrest warrants for people who are no-shows for their court dates.
In the past two months, the county court has issued at least 30 warrants or summonses, and local police have noticed the uptick in people arrested on a warrant.
“As a prosecutor, you only get so many bites at the apple, and we can’t prosecute cases if the defendant isn’t in court,” Shove said.
Depending on the severity of a crime or on a defendant’s history of showing up for court appearances, the state’s attorney’s office can ask the courts and police to apply varying levels of pressure.
Shove said his office is more likely to ask the court for a judicial summons if the absent defendant doesn’t have a history of blowing off court dates, or if the crime is a low-level misdemeanor. The first judicial summons typically arrives in the mail.
If that doesn’t do the trick, the judge issuing the summons can assign a police officer to deliver it personally to the defendant.
In more serious cases, or with people who have tended to miss court appearances in the past, the court can issue an arrest warrant.
During the week of July 8, a dozen people failed to appear for court hearings, one-fifth of the court’s entire scheduled docket for that week. During the first two weeks of August, there were 18 listed no-shows.
In Lamoille County, the arrest warrant is delivered to the sheriff’s department — right next door to the courthouse — which files the warrant in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. Law enforcement agencies around the country have immediate access to that information.
“If you get picked up in Des Moines, Iowa, because you didn’t signal before you pulled into the Walmart,” you can be arrested on the Lamoille County warrant, Shove said.
Sometimes, you don’t even need to commit a traffic violation or break a law.
“You can be arrested for no other reason than there’s a warrant out for you,” Shove said. “It’s incredible how often people will get picked up for the dumbest things, like going to get milk.”
Lately, Morristown Police Chief Richard Keith said, he and his officers have been arresting more people wanted on warrants.
Sometimes their names will be flagged on the police cruiser computer when an officer runs a license plate, and sometimes police will just look at the list of active arrest warrants the state’s attorney’s office provides, find familiar names and go looking for them.
“In this business, you get to know who your regulars are,” Keith said. “Sometimes, they forget after a while, maybe get a little careless.”
Most criminal cases are misdemeanors, and the state has a $200 ceiling on the amount it can request for bail. But sometimes that puts just enough teeth in the law to persuade a no-show to make the next court appearance.
Defendants accused of higher-level felonies, such as sex crimes and drug trafficking, are likely to have the book thrown at them. Shove will ask for much higher bail amounts — $100,000 in some cases — which will at least ensure the suspect stays incarcerated until posting bail, often long enough to be transported to an arraignment or hearing by police.
Shove said requests for arrest warrants or judicial summonses are dependent on the judge. He said Lamoille County’s most recent presiding judge, Megan Shafritz, “has been pretty good when there was history” of courtroom absenteeism.
Shafritz was a freshly-minted judge when she came to Lamoille County last year, appointed to the superior court by Gov. Phil Scott in February 2018.
Judge Nancy Waples, who just started her Lamoille County circuit last week, has more experience; she was appointed in 2014 and most recently presided in Chittenden County. Shove said he hopes Waples will be willing to issue warrants and summonses, and maybe even hold defendants in contempt of court if they fail to appear.
Keith said he thinks Shove is trying to wrap up some of the cases he inherited after being elected state’s attorney last fall, and a good step toward a wrap-up is making sure defendants show up for their court dates.
“I think he’s just trying to get on top of his workload,” Keith said.
Shove is only eight months into his first four-year term as state’s attorney, and hasn’t quite determined yet if aggressively pursuing courtroom no-shows will pay off.
“I don’t know if the word out on the street is they had better show up,” he said.
Balance of justice
Shove’s office has also gotten aggressive in the way it charges some suspects.
For instance, a recent drunken driving arrest came in as No. 4 and subsequent — police shorthand to indicate the defendant has been arrested at least four times for DUI.
Shove’s office amended the charge to read DUI No. 8, indicating the man had already been convicted seven times for the same crime.
He said he did that for two reasons. One, “so it is very clear to the court” how many DUIs the driver had on his record. Second, to indicate that perhaps this man deserves a stiffer sentence than someone accused of DUI No. 4 — and even a fourth offense is a serious felony.
“Not only do you want them off the road, but you want them incarcerated and off the road,” Shove said of a person with multiple drunken driving convictions. “I hope that people understand that repeat offenders are likely to get harsher sentences.”
On the other hand, Shove is still likely to send many low-level crimes to the Lamoille Restorative Center, which aims to divert defendants to community service-based forms of punishment and keeps the offender out of the court system.
Misdemeanor charges such as shoplifting or driving after license suspension, for instance, are often sent to diversion. Especially the license suspensions, because the Restorative Center has a knack for helping people get on the right track and get their driver’s licenses reinstated.
“That’s often for our younger offenders who don’t have any history of criminal behavior,” Shove said.
The Lamoille County State’s Attorney’s office also plans to help some people clear their criminal records.
Vermont has expanded its expungement law, under which people convicted of low-level crimes can ask the court to eliminate their record of convictions.
The county is hosting an expungement clinic Oct. 17 at the former Plaza Hotel in Morristown, the building the court moved into three years ago while the courthouse building went through a major overhaul.