A couple of months ago, Missoula Municipal Court awarded Erik Hurd $10,000 for the medical bills that stacked up after a drunk punched him in the face.
Hurd, a University of Montana graduate student in sociology, was trying to pull a bar patron off his friend when he got bashed in the eye. Doctors screwed a titanium plate into his face. The court found the offender guilty of assault and ordered $10,000 in restitution, but Hurd has yet to see even one minimum payment.
“The $50 a month barely covers interest. There’s no way it’s going to even come close to paying that full $10,000, even if he were to start paying, which he’s not,” Hurd said. “I’m getting nothing.”
The defendant’s bill went to collections. So did Hurd’s hospital bill. His credit has slipped and he no longer qualifies for a school loan called Graduate Plus.
“I’m just not seeing justice, just not seeing it,” Hurd said. “I’m being hounded by the hospital, getting X-rays, (I have) all these other bills to deal with the injury and no way to pay. There’s really nowhere to get money.”
Hurd’s not alone. Other Missoula crime victims also await restitution payments. And two lawyers in the city attorney’s office contend the court’s soft approach to crime and lax record-keeping lets some offenders off the hook easy, compromises public safety, and loses victims and the city money.
City records show the amount of money owed municipal crime victims in Missoula has reached at least $853,312 in roughly the past decade. This year through November, the court has sent more than $2.2 million in delinquent fines to the collections bureau. The records aren’t ever scrubbed, so the list is ancient, but the grand total of uncollected fines is $6.8 million, according to the city records.
“It’s more than a dispute about judicial philosophies,” said senior deputy city attorney Gary Henricks. “It’s the public out there who’s left holding the bag.”
The effects reach beyond the city of Missoula’s budget, the lawyers said. Drivers convicted of DUIs get tickets dismissed and end up back on the road. In some cases, they said, partner and family abusers don’t pay fines or complete anger management classes. And victims such as Hurd don’t get their due.
“There are practical effects, which ultimately are probably higher insurance rates, unpaid restitution, victims who don’t get compensated when they did nothing,” said deputy city attorney Carrie Garber.
Garber and Henricks, naturally in an adversarial role with the court at times, place blame directly on Municipal Judge Donald Louden.
Others, however, say problems in the court stem not from the judge but from a system that needs – and is getting – fixed.
Other stressors certainly play a role in the clash. The city budget is tight. The city attorney’s office recently lost Judy Wang, a prosecutor committed to victims of domestic violence, to a deadly traffic accident highway officials blame on a driver who smelled of alcohol.
“I think probably what the most frustrating thing for our office is, we’re being told because of the budgetary shortfall at the city, we may not be able to replace Judy’s position until next fiscal year because there’s not enough money,” Garber said. “In fact, there’s all this uncollected money the court hasn’t (recovered). It’s just like things boil for a while, and then explode.”
Certainly, Louden draws the ire of some lawyers inside the halls of justice. But in elections, the court of public opinion, he has won repeatedly and handily. (Henricks once lost to Louden, years ago.)
Louden sounds both sympathetic and frustrated to hear the concerns.
“I think they’re overwhelmed,” Louden said.
He said he’s made some changes in the court the last couple of years, such as requiring people who plead guilty to sign written waivers of their rights. Still, he said if the lawyers don’t like his decisions, they’re free to appeal.
In his court, Louden said people get no more of a break – and maybe less of one – than they do when those lawyers negotiate plea agreements. In partner family member assaults, for instance, he said the lawyers routinely amend and lower the charges.
He acknowledged he waives some surcharges and his fines are on the lower end of the scale, but they’re not the lowest ones imposed by judges. When he sentences defendants, he assesses their financial situation. Do they have a car? A phone? A job?
“The economy is not the best in the world right now,” Louden said. “For a person making $600 on disability, $50 is a big chunk.”
Generally, Louden said, the defendants before him don’t earn as much money as city attorneys, and the court’s purpose isn’t to fill city coffers: “Courts and fines aren’t about revenue.”
Plus, throwing people in jail costs taxpayers money, too, he said.
The bulk of the charges Municipal Court handles are traffic violations, but it also takes up more serious cases such as partner and family member assaults. If committed in the county, the same misdemeanor charge goes to Justice Court.
The Crime Victim Advocate office represents victims in both courts, and supervisor Jenny Daniel said both courts offer positives and negatives.
“My thoughts are we need to hold offenders accountable,” she said. “We need to figure that piece out. There needs to be more follow-through, tracking of offenders.”
To that end, Daniel said court professionals already are working to streamline paperwork and organization.
In the city attorney’s office, though, Henricks and Garber said Judge Louden puts people’s safety at risk. When someone gets charged with a DUI after three convictions, the state considers the fourth charge a felony.
In most states, Henricks said the third DUI charge is considered a felony. But Louden doesn’t always require people to sign written waivers of their rights when they enter guilty pleas, Henricks said. So he said the county can’t always prosecute the crimes as felonies because Municipal Court keeps poor records.
“So it does get pretty serious,” Henricks said. “You’re dealing with people who have three prior DUI convictions, or purportedly do, but they can’t prove it because of the court’s practices and procedures.”
He said the same holds true for people who assault family members.
Brad Boylan works with those offenders directly. Boylan is a licensed clinical professional counselor with the MAN program – Men Advocating Nonviolence – which offers educational courses required for people convicted of family assaults.
“Louden sends far more people to the program than the county does,” Boylan said.
It’s possible the county doesn’t arrest as many people for partner and family member assaults, he said. But Boylan said Municipal Court holds offenders accountable and has recently stepped up oversight.
He said people working more closely with the judge might have a different perspective, but he values Louden’s compassion from the bench: “He probably takes a more humanistic approach to dealing with people. He is pretty forgiving.”
Through November of this year, collections has pulled in $195,000 of delinquent fines, according to the city. “The composition of the fines sent to collections is basically the same as what is cited throughout any one year,” wrote city finance director Brentt Ramharter in an e-mail to the Missoulian.
The accounts sent over this year date back to citations that occurred in 2004, and the city of Missoula hasn’t always used the collections bureau, he said. That means it’s difficult to determine the actual success rate of collections any given year, but Louden said it’s been an effective way to recover money.
“I think we collect more restitution or as much as any other place in the state,” said Louden, who noted he’s one of the few judges who orders restitution in traffic cases.
Garber, though, said several tools aren’t in play – and should be. Additional jail time and community service are among them.
State statute also gives courts the authority to call for suspension of the driver’s license of a person who doesn’t pay fines or comply with a sentence. Garber said other courts and communities routinely do so, but Louden does not.
Louden said he issues warrants instead, and argued he does not have the power to suspend a driver’s license. Technically, the judge does not suspend licenses – but Henricks said he can send the state a letter requesting mandatory suspension.
Statute MCA 61-5-214 states that the state shall suspend a driver’s license if the court reports that he or she failed to appear after being charged with a misdemeanor, or failed to comply with a sentence – including failure to pay a fine, costs or restitution.
“His approach to holding people accountable makes a mockery of the whole system,” said Henricks, who has criticized the judge in years past. “Nobody is ever required to do anything.”
Hurd, though, is required to do something. Insurance paid $20,000 of his $30,000 hospital bill, and he’s supposed to pay on the rest. He said he told the judge his plight in court, and he stressed his bill already had been sent to collections and is accruing $1.50 in interest a day.
“I really doubt that I’ll get $10,000 and it will all be over,” Hurd said. “Plus, some of the damage is already done.”