Blaming a backlog at the Missoula Municipal Court, Judge Robert L. Deschamps III this month threw out a case because the defendant didn't receive a speedy trial.
"The delay...can only be attributed to institutional delay caused by extraordinary case load congestion and lack of judicial resources in the Missoula Municipal Court," Deschamps wrote in a May 6 opinion.
The case Deschamps refers to involves Edward Crossfield, cited Feb. 13, 2009 for his second DUI and three other charges. State law requires that individuals receive a trial within six months of being charged. In this case, nearly nine months elapsed before the defendant's attorney requested the case be dropped because the court didn't meet the deadline.
Municipal Court Administrator Pat Morgan says Crossfield's case highlights broader challenges.
"It's because we have so many people that plead not guilty anymore," she says.
Plus, she adds, defendants often don't show up for court dates, leaving valuable openings in the court's calendar wasted.
"If a defendant doesn't show or wants more time," Morgan says. "then 'speedy' goes away."
That was the case with Crossfield. According to court records, he didn't show up for a mandatory pretrial hearing scheduled for May 26, 2009. The court sent him notices advising him of subsequent court dates. Those notices came back unopened.
Months elapsed. Then on the day before Crossfield's Nov. 5 trial, the defendant's attorney, Scott Shefloe, filed a motion to dismiss the case, citing the court's violation of the speedy trial rule as legal rationale.
"There was a disagreement as to who was at fault," Shefloe says.
The case went up the judicial chain to the District Court. Once there, Deschamps acknowledged Crossfield could very well have been gaming the system. Even so, the court had to abide by the law. Deschamps says the court failed to use tools available to enforce court obligations, like trying defendants even though they are absent or issuing warrants and then clearing the court's calendar when absconders are brought in.
Morgan says her department is now trying to identify additional timesaving measures. Other than that, they'll just keep plugging away.
"We do the best we can," Morgan says. "It's quite the juggling act."