Doubled municipal court caseload straining city

·5 min read

Jul. 9—CHEYENNE — The city attorney and the mayor say Cheyenne Municipal Court's caseload has doubled from this time last year. The sharp increase has put a strain on city employees and its budget.

"We're consistently having over 125 arraignments every Monday and Wednesday," City Attorney Stefanie Boster said in an interview. "That volume never existed prior to this."

Some of the most common citations now ending up in municipal court are first, second and third DUI charges, Boster said.

"Normally, you might get a first-time DUI in municipal court, but, traditionally, when I was in private practice, those would go to circuit court," she said.

The municipal court handles only misdemeanor criminal cases. A fourth or greater DUI charge is a felony in Wyoming and would have to be handled in Laramie County District Court.

Other common cases now being seen in municipal court include property-related crimes and things like unlawful entry.

Boster guessed the court began seeing the caseloads increase in January of this year.

A second contract prosecutor was recently hired by the city. Before that, Boster said she would step in and help city prosecutor Thomas Szott handle cases. The Cheyenne city attorney's typical role is to prosecute and defend cases involving the city, not to prosecute criminal cases in municipal court.

"I estimate (Szott has) 750 open cases, which is a lot for municipal court prosecutor," Boster said.

Cheyenne's municipal court is the only one in Wyoming to have two prosecutors, according to Boster. Casper's municipal court has one.

Boster said city prosecutors are also staffing the county's DUI court "at the request and with the consent of" Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove.

A contract for a second public defender will go in front of the City Council at its Monday meeting, Boster said. There is also a third "overflow person" to act as defense counsel, as needed.

The court has two full-time judges, Tony Ross and David Singleton. Singleton was recently moved from part-time to help handle the caseload. A third judge, Ronn Jeffrey, deals only with juvenile cases and is employed part-time.

"That court is getting very, very busy," Boster said. "But if you're a prosecutor and you're overloaded, ethically, you're going to have issues. Same with a public defender, and the judges, too. There's just (only) so much volume you can handle as a human being." There's concern about "butting up against the Rules of Professional Conduct" for attorneys in the state.

'A perfect storm'

Keeping the municipal court adequately staffed at the moment comes at "a significant cost to the city," Boster said.

"I think the city needs to get a handle on what is creating that volume, and I think it's a perfect storm of factors: short staffing all the way around town (and in) the county. ... I don't know what's driving it — if it's an increase in crime, if it's our law enforcement doing better, I just don't know," the city attorney continued. "But we've got to figure that out as a community, I think."

In his "Mayor's Minute" column sent out July 1, Mayor Patrick Collins pointed to staffing issues in the Laramie County District Attorney's Office, headed by Manlove, as the cause of the sharp increase.

"With all the challenges our district attorney is having with hiring prosecutors, our municipal court is taking on much of the caseload," Collins wrote, adding that the city needed to hire another prosecutor and public defender to keep up.

"The law requires our court to provide counsel if the accused cannot afford it," the mayor continued. "The cost of running the court is frustrating to me. It is very expensive, and so many of the folks they deal with are transients, so they can't afford to pay for legal counsel, or pay the fines associated with their transgressions. We are working through it and hope the district attorney can find prosecutors to take up some of the caseload."

In an interview, Collins said he was "speculating" as to the cause of the caseload increase, but "what I'm hearing is that the district attorney's office is significantly short of prosecutors right now." Because of this, the DA's office is having to prioritize more serious cases, "as they should," the mayor said.

Manlove did not respond to multiple requests from the WTE for comment. It's unclear how many prosecutors are currently employed at the DA's office and how many open positions exist.

In a July 7 email forwarded to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Manlove announced the recent hiring of a deputy prosecutor, two legal assistants, a victim-witness office coordinator and a receptionist.

Boster said the local legal community, in general, is having a hard time hiring enough people, and that a short-staffed DA's office was likely just one of several factors contributing to the skyrocketing case numbers.

While she couldn't point to exact causes, Boster guessed it could also be attributed to increases in certain crimes within the city in 2021.

Several categories of property crime increased in the city between 2020 and 2021, according to a recent analysis by the WTE of data from the Cheyenne Police Department. A separate WTE analysis determined some of these crimes, as well as some violent crimes, could be on track for a decrease if current 2022 trends continue.

Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at hblack@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.