Critics: Flimsy constitutional protections in Utah's justice courts

Tuesday , February 16, 2016 - 7:05 AM6 comments

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner

The jailing of a Bear River City man who soon died in a holding cell is emblematic of growing concerns about whether defendants in Utah justice courts are treated with due regard for their constitutional rights.

Rex Iverson, 45, was found dead in the Box Elder County Jail on Jan. 23 only hours after he was picked up on a $350 bench warrant for repeatedly ignoring civil court orders to pay a nearly $2,400 Tremonton City Ambulance bill. The death is under investigation but foul play is not suspected.

“The sad irony is that he presumably needed health care attention one day and ends up dying in jail years later unable to pay for that ambulance service,” said Josh Daniels, policy analyst for the Libertas Institute, headquartered in Lehi.

Daniels said if non-criminals such as Iveson are being jailed, it signals there is a problem in the system that imperils full protection of defendants’ constitutional rights.

“There is this notion that we should not have a debtors prison, but in reality people who owe debts can be imprisoned, and that can be an issue,” he said. “I don’t think the state should seek jail time for violations of some civil matter.”

Locking up a debtor is a self-defeating action, Daniels said.

“Can you get blood out of a turnip? The thing about going to jail, your time does not pay your debt. No amount of time pays the debt that you owe.”

But with improvements in how such cases are handled, the process could work better, Daniels said.

“We should facilitate these people rather than have them being put in jail, with work programs, other avenues,” he said. ”We should be creative about finding solutions. A person should be obliged to pay, but putting him in jail doesn’t solve the problem. If we are more effective, the people owed money are getting paid and the people who owe are paying. We need to look at the mechanism.”

In the Legislature, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require justice court judges to have a law degree. Richard Schwermer, assistant state courts administrator, said 54 of Utah’s 98 justice court judges are not attorneys.

Current law requires only that a justice court judge have a high school diploma or equivalent.

“Justice court judges every day decide important constitutional issues including possible incarceration,” Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, said in a phone interview. “We need to make sure they get their rulings right. It will increase confidence in the justice court system.”

Hall said it is “a big deal when they are ruling on your constitutional rights every day … when they can throw you in jail and take away your money.”

In the environment, injustices are possible, Hall said.

“If we were to pick any level of court in Utah where it is most important to be law trained it would be at the justice court level,” he said. “The reason for that is that litigants there usually don’t have an attorney and the judge needs to be aware of constitutional and evidentiary issues and procedures.”

Hall, an attorney, said he began working on the bill after the Sixth Amendment Center issued a harsh report about Utah’s justice courts last year.

“Utah’s justice courts face systemic pressures from a high-volume caseload and a lack of uniformity in information and procedures to assure compliance with constitutional requirements,” the report said.

“Utah’s trial courts do not uniformly provide counsel at all critical stages of criminal cases as required by the U.S. Supreme Court, with many defendants – particularly those facing misdemeanor charges in justice courts – never speaking to an attorney.”

These questionable practices have become institutionalized by a lack of accountability, the report said.

Hall downplayed concern that justice courts would struggle to find judges if the professional requirements were increased.

“There’s not a lack of attorneys in the state,” he said.

Justice courts are established by counties and municipalities and have the authority to deal with class B and C misdemeanors, violations of ordinances, small claims, and infractions. Justice courts hear the vast majority of cases in Utah.

Justice courts also have jurisdiction over claims under $10,000, such as Rex Iverson’s unpaid ambulance bill.

You can reach Mark Shenefelt at 801 625-4224 or mshenefelt@standard.net

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