New Delavan judge, clerk working to restore court
New Delavan Municipal Judge Jim Ritchie, who took office in May, and Sandi Jeffrey, his court clerk, have implemented fresh practices for courtroom conduct and fine collections.
As of early December, the court had collected $227,658 for 2010. In 2009, the court collected only $119,364.
Heightened ticket revenue means the court is pouring more money into the city's general fund, which is an account the city generally draws from to finance its annual spending.
After portions of the revenue go to the state, the county and to smaller expenses, the city should net more than $145,339 from Ritchie's court, records show. In 2009, the city received $78,050.
Ritchie attributes the revenue uptick to Rambo-like efforts he, Jeffrey and the Delavan Police Department have devised to track down scofflaws and restore credibility to the local court.
When Ritchie took the bench, mounds of unpaid tickets were piled in the office of the former clerk, Henry L. Johnson, who now faces a felony charge of failing to perform his duties by not following up on tickets that had gone through the court.
Jeffrey says there are three file cabinet draws full of tickets from the previous court that she or the judge has yet to examine.
One of their first tasks was to inventory and attempt collection of fines on as many old tickets as possible.
Ritchie said he recently found a ticket dating to 1993. At some point, Ritchie says, he will have to void some tickets because of their age.
A payment technique Ritchie immediately used was to call to court adults who were way past due on payments and to send them to Walworth County Jail until fines were paid.
"You should have seen it, we had squads lined up to take them to jail," Ritchie said. "And some ducked out of court to pay their fines at the (City Hall) counter to avoid going to jail."
The court held three special Thursday sessions to catch up on outstanding tickets issued between 2007 and 2009.
Two regular court hearings were so crowded by delinquent tickets holders that one session went from 3 p.m. to 1:10 a.m. Ritchie is serving a two-year term and earns $12,000 annually.
For those who didn't show up at court, Ritchie issued bench warrants for their arrests.
About 550 warrants have been issued since May 1, the day Ritchie became judge, and about 250 are outstanding, Jeffrey said.
Ritchie said under the old court defendants would not appear because they didn't fear retribution. The court had little respect, he said.
Now, if juveniles don't appear or respond to tickets, police officers will pick them up from school or their homes and bring them to court.
Adults get two notices to address their tickets or warrants will be issued.
The police department has two officers who specialize in tracking down those named in warrants and bringing them to court.
In a small town, picking up scofflaws works well because everyone basically knows everyone, and there are few places to hide, Ritchie said.
The court no longer uses a collection agency to collect fines. The officers are much more effective, Ritchie said.
"People are starting to take us much more seriously," Jeffrey said. "We've made a dent."
'A new court'
The judge said he still hears complaints that the old court did it differently.
"Well, this is a new court," Jeffrey said.
The lack of fine collections frustrated Delavan police, who began to feel their enforcement efforts were being minimized by an inactive court, Ritchie said.
"Now, the officers are pounding the beats pretty well," Ritchie said.
Other court changes are in the works.
The judge now assesses a $50 surcharge to those with warrants issued against them.
Ritchie said he wants to expand opportunities for juveniles to perform community service instead of paying fines.
The court will publish a weekly list of about a dozen people with outstanding warrants.
Because more juveniles are landing in local court, there will be two hearings for youth each month, instead of just one. The additional court hearings will begin in January.
The Walworth County criminal complaint against Johnson, the fired clerk, sheds light on how the court got into its present situation.
Johnson is charged with felony misconduct in public office for mishandling drunken driving tickets issued by local police during the past four years.
Johnson, 56, of Sharon Township remains free on bail. He is a former Walworth County sheriff's deputy.
At Johnson's last court appearance, defense attorney Janelle L Glasbrenner said she would file motions to have a special prosecutor appointed to the case because her client is well known by local law enforcement and court officials.
Former Municipal Judge LeRoy Himebauch fired Johnson on March 11, after the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles reported he was not promptly reporting citations to the state. The judge resigned a week later.
The charge carries a penalty of up to three years and six months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
It's not known how many tickets went unreported to the DMV, but authorities have not been able to accurately determine the histories of some defendants' drunken driving records from Delavan.
Prosecutors say tickets went unreported from January 2006 to March 2010. The local court was closed for two months early this year while investigators rummaged through court papers, which Ritchie and Jeffrey continue to do.
According the complaint:
Elkhorn Police told investigators they arrested a man for drunken driving in late 2009, and the man told police he'd been convicted two years earlier in Delavan of a first-time drunken driving. It did not show up on his driving record, compiled by the DMV.
A copy of the ticket was presented to Johnson, who responded that he wasn't reporting OWI tickets to the state until the fines were paid in full.
A state official reported that all citations needed to be sent to the state agency within five working days.
Officials went through Johnson's former office and "found piles of paper everywhere and envelopes with checks and cash, which appeared to be payments for citations," according to the complaint.
An accounting firm inventoried the office papers and found a substantial amount of the citations were uncollected.
Ritchie said he had hoped to have the old tickets cleared up by the end of this year, but he now realizes that is not possible.
"I really can't say when it'll be done," he said. "The more we look, we find another problem."