Paperwork load floods court

Columbia Municipal Court is busier than ever as a result of more arrests.
Thursday, May 27, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:59 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

An increase in police activity may mean better law enforcement, but it is also threatening to overwhelm the Columbia Municipal Court.

Shara Meyer, clerk of the court, said she has seen an increase in citations for city ordinance and traffic violations, as well as misdemeanor drug violations. That has meant additional paperwork for her staff of five clerks and one probation officer.

“Of course we’re not comfortable with (the increase in paperwork),” Meyer said. “But we’re dealing with it as best we can.”

Meyer said she is in desperate need of more clerical help, but she’ll have to wait at least another five months. Any increase in staff must have the approval of City Council, which won’t take up next year’s budget until August. The city’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Assistant City Manager Bill Watkins said the city is aware of the mounting paperwork and the increasingly congested facilities at municipal court. But with only so much money to go around, there is no guarantee that the clerks will get the staff they need.

“Even though there’s a definite need,” Watkins said, “we still have to prioritize.”

Meyer became clerk of the municipal court in 1992. The court has seen an increase in cases every year. In 2003, Meyer and her staff handled 15,251 cases — about 1,150 cases more than the previous year. This year, Meyer expects another increase in the court’s caseload — and that doesn’t include the court’s biggest task: processing parking tickets.

A single staff member handles about 63,000 parking tickets each year, Meyer said, and with the police department’s new Traffic Enforcement Unit up and running, that number is bound to increase.

The court’s caseload has also been impacted by a change in how police are dealing with people caught with less than 35 grams of marijuana.

Last year, Proposition One, a proposal to ease penalties for possession of medical marijuana or misdemeanor amounts of pot, failed to win the necessary votes to become law.

Advocates for the measure, however, persuaded Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm to handle the cases through municipal court, which would keep many nonviolent drug offenders out of jail. Since then, there has been a 35 percent increase in misdemeanor drug possession cases filed in municipal court, according to court records.

Watkins said City Manager Ray Beck is in the process of looking at next year’s budget, and is putting together a proposal for the council’s consideration. Boehm has already requested additional officers, and other city departments have asked for more staff, as well.

Meanwhile, the Boone County Circuit Court is also seeing an increase in its caseload. Circuit Court Clerk Cheryl Whitmarsh said.

The combination of Boone County’s growth and increased police activity has created the need for about five additional clerks, which would likely be funded through the state budget.

Whitmarsh, who joined the circuit court in the 1980s, said she has a staff of 39 to handle 20,000 to 25,000 cases a year. The county has funded additional clerks to handle microfilm records and child support cases. The state has also provided funding to prevent a reduction in staff through attrition, including replacing people who have retired.

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