Belgrade's City Court may become a court of record in 2020, a change that proponents say will save money, increase efficiency, and save victims of violent crimes from the trauma of testifying more than once.
Belgrade City Court Judge Andrew Breuner proposed the change for a number of reasons. He explained that because no official records of proceedings are kept in non-record courts like Belgrade's, there is no way for judges and attorneys to examine evidence, testimony and procedures used during trials whose verdicts are appealed.
"If a Belgrade jury deliberates over a day or two, the verdict is subject to appeal in District Court, and the whole process has to be done over," Breuner said. "In a court of record, there is an audio record of the proceedings."
Belgrade is now the largest city in Montana without at least one court of record, according to Breuner, and he expects that might become a problem because the community is growing so fast. He said most guilty verdicts that are appealed out of Belgrade City Court end up being settled by the parties, but those that aren't end up in District Court for retrial.
"I would say that historically we have seen relatively few appeals, but that is a function that we have relatively few trials," Breuner said. "But if a party appeals a guilty verdict and the case is tried anew, it's basically a do-over of the trial."
That means that when appeals do reach a higher court, taxpayers end up footing a second bill to compensate the jurors, city prosecutor, police officers and expert witnesses for their time. The cases also add to already crowded dockets in the District Court.
"I received support from District Court judges on making this move," Breuner said. "It would make the most efficient use of the District Court's time, and be most respectful of the time put in in Belgrade."
City Prosecutor Chris Gregory agreed that despite Belgrade's fairly low rate of appeals that go to trial, "even if we only have one or two a year, it's a positive."
Gregory added that in addition to the monetary savings, avoiding a second trial would keep victims of domestic violence or sexual assault from having to testify a second time.
"It's a hardship on victims to have to testify," Gregory said. "That's a bigger concern for me than having to re-try a case,"
Belgrade City Court is held in the City Hall chambers, which also are used by the City Council. Money was allocated in the current fiscal year budget to remodel and update the space, which is needed whether or not the court status changes, said City Manager Ted Barkley. About $10,000 of the remodel budget has been set aside for the electronic equipment and software that would be needed to record court proceedings.
Exactly how much additional staff time would be required to support the change is yet to be determined, but funding to hire a new part-time court clerk also was included in this year's budget.
Belgrade City Court is one of about 150 limited jurisdiction courts in Montana, and according to Breuner, only about 20 of them are courts of record. Having non-record courts makes sense in many jurisdictions, he said, but he doesn't believe it is best for Belgrade.
"My determination was that it makes sense for a community our size with a docket of our size and projected growth rate over the next decade," he said.
Barkely agreed. "As the volume of cases grows in city courts, we're looking at ways to make justice more efficient."
The change is subject to the approval of the Belgrade City Council, but exactly when the resolution will be ready hasn't been decided. If approved, Barkley and Breuner agreed that the change won't go into effect until sometime after the first of the year.