The Clatsop County District Attorney's office is ready to take the city of Astoria's drunk-driving cases.
District Attorney Josh Marquis spoke and presented a letter to that effect at Monday's City Council meeting.
"This is just an offer," he said. But he pointed out that Astoria is the only city in Clatsop County whose municipal court doesn't send its DUII cases to Circuit Court.
Marquis' request is not a new one. It's a topic that has come up many times throughout the years.
But he thought the timing was perfect to make a formal request: He is running unopposed for his fifth term as district attorney; the DA's office is, from an organizational standpoint, he said, ready to handle additional cases without an increase in staff; and the city will be finalizing its budget soon.
"Absolutely there will be a lot more consideration," said Mayor Willis Van Dusen. "We're going into the budget process. It's a very viable option. It's a council decision. We'll have to look into it."
Marquis estimates an average of 80 DUII cases a year, two thirds of which might go to trial. The other third would most likely go into diversion programs.
"The DA's office sees about 1,200 criminal cases per year so you're talking less than a one percent increase in the case load," he said.
"I'm not asking you for any more money. I'm not asking the county for any more money," Marquis told the council. In his letter he said: "... I would anticipate a significant savings to the city from the costs of the City Attorney, Municipal Judge, court-appointed lawyers, jury trials and any jail costs."
The council made no decision regarding Marquis' request Monday.
Sheriff Tom Bergin and Circuit Court Judge Cindee Matyas were both present to show their support for Marquis' request.
"This is a smart thing to do, as far as I'm concerned," Bergin said.
Currently, when police officers write up citations for offenders caught driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they can check one of two different boxes and send an offender to Astoria Municipal Court or Clatsop County Circuit Court.
Kris Kaino, a local attorney, presides as judge over the Municipal Court and answers to the Astoria City Council. But with officers testifying in both circuit court and municipal court, Judge Kaino's role can be confusing, Bergin said.
One minute he's a defense attorney (in circuit court) who is questioning the officers one way, Bergin said, and then (in municipal court) he's a judge who is questioning them in a different way.
Currently, Astoria is the only city in Clatsop County whose municipal court still tries DUII cases. The other cities in the county send their DUII cases to Circuit Court and have been doing so for years.
One reason, Mayor Van Dusen said, is because the city makes money by handling these cases.
"The finances are definitely a factor," Mayor Van Dusen said. "And there's the revenue received from the citations, but there's also the savings in the police officers going to circuit court. (Municipal court) is a city court and the court director Liz Green has the schedule for the police officers and she can schedule the trials and the hearings around their schedules to limit the overtime."
He said there are other factors besides finances, such as how such a decision would affect the city's current agreement with City Attorney Hal Snow and "how the community feels about limiting municipal court. For years and years and years, 25 years, city court has handled DUII cases."
But, he added, all these factors would be looked at as part of the budget process.
"We just need more input, but this sure gives us an option that we can consider," the mayor said. "There will be a lot of discussion with the budget committee. We'll be talking with our police officers - a public hearing to see what the community thinks, definitely."
Prior research by The Daily Astorian found that in 2008, of the 92 DUII cases filed at the municipal court, 13 were convicted and 18 were dismissed and about half of the defendants entered diversion programs.
A court-ordered diversion program costs about $430 per person, totaling more than $20,000 for 2008. Much of this money ends up in the city's coffers, said Judge Kaino.
But these revenue numbers are deceptive, Marquis maintains. Since DUII cases are criminal cases and not infractions (like traffic violations), the city often has to pay for any jail time, provide a court appointed lawyer and a jury, he says.
What if the city could save that money by not trying DUII cases at all? he asked. Perhaps the money could be put to providing an officer for the county's drug team. The sheriff's office and the Seaside Police Department provide officers, but Astoria hasn't for years.
Matyas also spoke in support of this plan.
As a judge, she sees the results of drug use and abuse every day, she said, adding that the increase in drug use at schools is "shocking."
Reporter Sandra Swain contributed to this story.