Defense cases strain Airway Heights court
A growing number of cases requiring public defense means some changes could be coming to Airway Heights’ Municipal Court in the very near future.
At the Monday, April 1 Airway Heights City Council meeting the city’s public defender, Ronnie Rae, said a decision by the Supreme Court last year has impacted the number of cases he can take at a municipal level. With Airway Heights’ recent annexations, the number of cases he sees has increased.
Rae said a voluminous number of cases are coming from Walmart and Northern Quest. The resort and casino operation makes up one-third of the cases he takes.
The Supreme Court’s decision limited public defenders to 250 cases per year, or up to 400 weighted cases each year. A public defender can count some cases as half, or even a third of a client, depending on a case’s severity. Thefts from Walmart as well as other stores in the city make up a large amount of Rae’s case load.
In addition, he said Airway Heights has an “incredibly high amount” of domestic violence cases that come to the court, most of which come from Northern Quest, from both down on the casino floor or in the hotel. The defendants appearing in municipal court want a public defender, he said, and they qualify for one.
The Supreme Court ruling binds a public defender from taking a 401st case. For Airway Heights, that could come up as soon as July. The court’s ruling also prevents offices like Rae’s from taking other private cases while serving as a public defender.
“There is going to be a time in the very near future where I’ll be in jeopardy,” Rae said.
At that point, the city would need to consider contracting out to a different law office for public defender services, or providing additional funds to Rae’s practice to hire another lawyer. Rae, who has been with the city for seven years, is currently paid $4,000 each month and currently works with a Rule Nine intern to alleviate some of the new case load rules. Interns can have up to 75 cases in a year. In comparison to his compensation, a new college graduate can receive around $60,000 each year, plus benefits.
“It comes down to a matter of resources,” Rae said.
City Attorney Stanley Schwartz asked if the city could decriminalize some of the cases that were coming to the court. Airway Heights has already decriminalized driving with a suspended license cases. Rae said he can’t see anywhere the city could make changes, especially since due to the number of domestic violence and theft charges coming to the court.
“Airway Heights won’t decriminalize domestic violence, nor should it, or theft,” Rae said.
Many of the cases Rae discussed ended up in defendants being trespassed from locations for a year, the bulk of those taking place at Northern Quest.
“I’m not saying the cases coming to my office are bad cases, but there are a lot of valid cases that will require prosecution,” Rae said.
Also at the City Council meeting, a bid for developing phase one of Aspen Grove Park was awarded to Schimmels Construction Development Group, Inc., for $319,578. Parks, recreation and community services director J.C. Kennedy said the work includes mobilization, earthwork, hardscape, utilities, irrigation and landscaping.
The City Council also passed the first read of its transportation benefits district ordinance. Public Works Director Kelly Williquette said five citizens had signed up to be part of an advisory committee to oversee the project. He also announced that Eastern Washington University students would be helping with public relations. A second reading will take place at the next City Council meeting, Monday, April 15 at 5:30 p.m. in council chambers.
James Eik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.