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Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017 12:06 am

Will the last person leaving the courthouse turn out the lights?

Court cases plummet in Sangamon County

 Maybe we’re driving better. Maybe cops are looking the other way.

Whatever the reason, the number of cases filed in Sangamon County Circuit Court has plummeted over the last decade, largely due to a decline in the number of traffic tickets issued by police.

The number of cases filed has fallen by 38 percent since 2008, when 81,637 cases were processed, according to the Sangamon County circuit clerk’s office. Last year, 50,710 cases were filed, and the trend so far this year is flat.

The largest reduction is in traffic cases other than driving under the influence charges. There were 26,000 fewer traffic citations processed by the circuit clerk’s office last year than in 2008. Driving under the influence cases are also down sharply, particularly in the past two years, as are misdemeanor cases. Felonies, however, have held steady over the past decade, up some years and down others with no clear trend.

We are as litigious as ever. The number of civil lawsuits has remained fairly steady over the years. Still, the decline in misdemeanor, traffic and DUI cases typically handled by associate judges, as opposed to circuit judges, might make it easier to fill a hole that will be left by Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge John Schmidt, who has been assigned to the Fourth Appellate Court.

Chief Circuit Judge John Belz said that associate judges Brian Otwell and Rudolph Braud likely will take over cases that otherwise would have been handled by Schmidt. Circuit judges Ryan Cadagin and John Madonia are expected to help with the civil caseload that would have been heard in Schmidt’s court. The vacancy left by Schmidt will last at least until after the former circuit judge stands for election to his new post at the appellate court a year from now. The state Supreme Court can then appoint a new circuit judge to replace Schmidt, but the court is not required to fill the post.

“It is often left up to the chief judge in the circuit to determine if the vacancy needs to be filled by the Supreme Court appointment, and caseloads could be a factor in determining that,” wrote Christopher Bojean, Supreme Court spokesman, in an email.

Explanations for the decline in case filings vary, with neither police, prosecutors nor defense attorneys certain of why the number of cases has fallen. But lawyers, if no one else, are feeling the pinch.

“From a criminal defense bar standpoint, nobody has to tell us the numbers are down,” said defense attorney Daniel Fultz. “It’s getting tougher and tougher. You’ve got more and more attorneys competing for a much smaller piece of the pie.”

Fultz has a number of theories. The state has decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and those cases, which were once handled by courts, are now handled by municipalities as ordinance violations. He also said he believes that police have cut back on enforcement of traffic and DUI laws. Traffic court defendants who once needed to appear in person or hire a lawyer to request supervision can now get supervision via the mail, which adds to the squeeze, Fultz said.

Clients stand to lose, Fultz said. There are two kinds of criminal defense attorneys, he said, with one kind making ends meet by handling high case volumes and the other handling fewer but more serious, and more complicated, cases. And the laws of economics apply to lawyers as much as anyone else as the number of cases falls, he said.

“For the people who are doing the higher volume work, it has a huge impact,” Fultz said. “They’re getting fewer cases. Just like any other business enterprise, it drives the cost down. You get attorneys who get hungry for work who start taking cases outside their normal practice area, and I think it leads to a disservice to the client, if it hasn’t already.”

Deputy chief Dyle Stokes of the Springfield Police Department said that city cops aren’t slacking off when it comes to writing tickets, but he has no simple explanation for the reduction in traffic cases. The city, which in recent years has had two officers dedicated to DUI enforcement, is down to one DUI officer, but that vacancy is expected to be filled within a month. Fatalities caused by drunken drivers are down in recent years, Stokes said, and the city hasn’t had a single fatal DUI accident this year. He said education, strict enforcement of DUI laws over the years and the rise of Uber might help explain the decline in drunken driving cases DUI cases.

The Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t had a dedicated DUI officer for more than a year. The department, which traditionally has had one deputy assigned to enforce DUI laws, plans to put a deputy back on DUI patrol in December, said chief deputy Joe Roesch, who attributed the lack of a DUI officer to retirements of deputies. Owing to budget cuts, the department eliminated its traffic division, which had included two or three deputies, in 2008, Roesch said.

“It’s just manning and resources,” Roesch said.

State’s attorney John Milhiser said that the reduction in cases hasn’t changed the way his office approaches cases. He noted that there were more than 1,200 first appearances in traffic court this week.

“We still have a significant number of traffic cases,” Milhiser said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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