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VOL. 127 | NO. 67 | Thursday, April 5, 2012

Commissioners Out of Probable Cause Biz

By Bill Dries

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Judicial commissioners are out of the business of holding probable cause hearings for suspects arrested by Memphis Police and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.

The week-old General Sessions Court order is in effect at least until a probable appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court of a March state Criminal Appeals Court ruling that has called into question the way some suspects are held for 48 hours before they are formally charged.

The ruling and its effect has called attention to the 14-year-old program that began with three judicial commissioners in 1998.

“The commissioners are no longer involved in that process,” said General Sessions Court Judge Loyce Lambert Ryan, who co-signed the order and is the supervising judge for the judicial commissioners. “The commissioner involvement in the process started initially somewhat further back at the inception of the program to ensure the case law was followed on the 48-hour holds. That was part of the problem with the jail that there were 48-hour holds, but there was not a mechanism for there to be a written finding of probable cause.”

Lambert Ryan said the problem wasn’t with the process or the commissioners but what they were told by police in the case.

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich has said her office will likely appeal the Appeals Court decision that sent a murder case back to Criminal Court for retrial.

The court ordered a new trial for Courtney Bishop, who was convicted on first-degree murder and attempted aggravated robbery charges in a 2008 incident. The court tossed the robbery charge and changed the first-degree murder charge to second-degree murder in the retrial.

The court scolded Memphis Police officers for holding the suspect for 48 hours while they attempted to get probable cause instead of having it when they got the hold.

“The police can still arrest and hold someone for probable cause for 48 hours if probable cause is there,” she said. “(The) Bishop (case) deals with the testimony of the officers saying they arrested someone and they didn’t have probable cause.”

The commissioners work every weekday during regular business hours on the second floor of the Criminal Justice Center as other courts are open for business in other parts of the building at 201 Poplar Ave.

On court records, it is known as Division 25.

It is just one part of the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, 52-week-a-year work done by eight full-time judicial commissioners.

In the hearing room, they issue orders of protection in domestic violence cases. They are also the first stop for felony drug defendants who go from there to Shelby County Drug Court. They also hold seizure and forfeiture hearings that generated a total of $3.7 million last year.

They set bonds in the wee hours of the morning or night. They sign warrants. They hold video arraignments.

It all takes place in a jail annex when most people are asleep.

“The administration of justice is a 24-hour job,” Lambert Ryan said. “It doesn’t stop once we leave the bench.”

The commissioners, she said, are essential to a local criminal justice system that is still overwhelming in its caseload.

“We have two more people a day doing tasks that judges would have to do and we still are overwhelmed with what we are doing every day as far as hearings and trials,” Lambert Ryan said at the end of a day in court in which she had a docket of 172 cases. “They are very important in the administration of justice. We would have to have more courts.”

The commissioners are about to make some other changes.

Orders of protection in domestic violence cases will be worked out much faster when the commissioners begin working with those seeking the orders this month through the Family Safety Center.

“They are going to process the applications on computer. These applications will be sent by video conference and electronically to a commissioner, which will be housed here,” Lambert Ryan said, referring to the Criminal Justice Center. “They will review those and have the means to talk directly to the petitioner and signed them electronically or deny them.”

It can currently take 10 days for a petitioner to get a copy of the order and the notice process to begin.

“The old-fashioned way – a lot of gas being burned with people coming back and forth to the courthouse to pick up a copy of the petition to find out what’s going on,” is how she described it. “We’re hoping this will expedite the process and work through the process.”

Lambert Ryan credits the commissioners for “putting some muscle” in court efforts to collect court fines and other costs through an escrow skip docket.

The just-released report on the commissioners’ work says the commissioners last year generated more than $1.4 million in fines and costs that had been going unpaid.

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