A Northeast Kingdom lawyer believes his client was unjustly cited by police last weekend because of bungled court records.
While court officials have disputed the criticism, it highlights concerns about communication with Orleans County court officials — a complaint shared by the defense attorney and the county’s top prosecutor.
Attorney David Sleigh of St. Johnsbury said his client had been accused of assaulting a police officer in July 2019, but the charges were dismissed around the end of April. Sleigh declined to identify the man because the charges were dismissed and the case is set to be sealed.
But when police talked to his client Saturday about a traffic incident in Montpelier, they cited him for violating a curfew — one of the conditions set when he was released from custody to await trial on the assault case.
Those conditions — part of the 2019 case — no longer exist.
“The case was not showing as dismissed [when officers checked the client’s records], and so he was charged with violating his conditions of release,” Sleigh said Wednesday.
Brian Grearson, chief superior judge with the Vermont court system, disputed Sleigh’s criticisms of the courts and pointed to the police.
“Our review shows that the records available to the police would show that all pending charges had been dismissed by the state on April 27, 2021,” Grearson said via email. “Although the same record would show the conditions of release that had been in effect, it is not clear to us why the police would have cited the defendant for violating a condition of release after the charges had been dismissed.”
Grearson said state court officials are “still looking into the issues” raised by Sleigh.
The situation didn’t stop with the client’s citation, though.
And what happened when Sleigh tried to remedy the issue speaks to a broader trend lawyers say is a problem in the Orleans County justice system: lackluster communication.
Sleigh said he called the court’s criminal division Monday and was directed to a central call center outside the Kingdom. The person who answered said, “I’ve been told there’s no one there, and your best bet is to email,” according to Sleigh.
Though he thought the situation demanded immediate attention, Sleigh decided to send an email. He didn’t get a response until after business hours, according to an email thread he shared with VTDigger.
That sort of sluggish communication could infringe on people’s civil rights, he said, and “if serious improvements aren’t made … quickly, the relief would be to sue the judiciary.”
Other lawyers have raised similar concerns, including the main prosecutor for Orleans County.
State’s Attorney Jennifer Barrett emailed court officials July 2, saying her office faced “increased difficulty” talking with the court staff during office hours.
“The call center is often unable to connect us with a person, puts us through to voicemail (even when we explain we need a person) or generally explains to us that they have no idea where or what the court staff are doing,” Barrett wrote. “This is very challenging when there is a lodging (and police cannot reach the court), search warrants, emergency juvenile hearings, etc.”
When people from her office email court officials about time-sensitive matters, they don’t get a timely response, the prosecutor wrote.
Speaking Wednesday, Barrett said the lone criminal clerk in Orleans County is great at her job. “But she’s one person,” Barrett said.
When the clerk is out, the prosecutor said, “there’s no way to reach anybody at all.”
Barrett said the spotty line of communication has been noticeable over the past several months and has complicated law enforcement’s work.
“It’s important that, if there’s something exigent that happens during court hours, we have a mechanism for direct communications with the court,” she said.
She said she never received a response to her concerns.
Grearson said via email that if someone wants to talk with a specific official who is out, the call center will advise them to contact a general email address for the Orleans court that is monitored by several people. He did not acknowledge whether a problem with that system exists.
The call center would also let the caller know if the specific employee is out for the day and “would try to reach the court operations manager by telephone if this was an emergent need,” Grearson wrote.
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