If a witness identified the defendant in Missoula Justice Court, but there's no record of it, who's to say that witness ever testified in the first place?
That question might seem like a lapse in logic, but currently, proceedings in Justice Court are not recorded by audio or transcribed by a court reporter. That means testimony from victims or key witnesses isn't available for review if the case is appealed to a higher court; they'd have to take the stand, potentially reliving the worst moments of their life.
That will change beginning next year, after the Missoula County Board of Commissioners last week approved a resolution to transition Justice Court to a court of record on Jan. 1, 2020.
"This change will allow there to be a record of those proceedings," said Missoula County Chief Operating Officer Chris Lounsbury at Thursday's meeting.
Lounsbury said county officials have been setting aside the funding to update the court's equipment for this very transition to an electronic recording system. Waiting to make that technological leap until Jan. 1, 2020, gives attorneys plenty of notice of the change ahead of time and provides court staff time to train on the new gadgets.
Both Missoula County Justices of the Peace Landee Holloway and Alex Beal have supported the new measure in the last year.
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"With a bit more accuracy, I think we become that better, efficient peoples' court that we want to be," Holloway said.
Missoula County Justice Court sees about 14,000 cases each year, Lounsbury said, compared to 17,000 in Yellowstone County Justice Court, 12,000 in Flathead County Justice Court and about 9,000 in Gallatin County Justice Court.
Of those 14,000 in Missoula, only about 25 are ever appealed to the state district court in Missoula.
"It is relatively small," Beal told commissioners, "but every one of those appeals is someone's fight, someone's life. And unfortunately, a lot of those are criminal cases, and people come in to testify in one of those cases, that can be very a difficult or traumatic moment. And even if one of those people doesn't have to go through that process a second time on appeal, I think we've done a great thing."
Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst on Thursday also spoke "strongly" in support of the new measure, which she said will hold the courts, attorneys and defendants more accountable to their actions in Justice Court if questions arise from past proceedings.
Commissioners Dave Strohmaier lauded past commissioners' foresight in setting aside the money ahead of the transition. He and Josh Slotnick, the only two commissioners on hand Thursday, unanimously voted to pass the resolution.