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Central Court now operating in Uniontown

Mary Pickels
| Friday, November 14, 2014 10:57 p.m

The nearness of the new Fayette County Central Court to the county jail is expected to save both time and money, county and Uniontown city officials said Friday.

“This has been a long time coming,” said President Judge John F. Wagner Jr., during an open house at the former Uniontown police station.

Initiated at Wagner’s direction, the court, at 80 N. Beeson Ave., will handle preliminary hearings in all criminal cases charged as misdemeanors and felonies, regardless of where the cases initiate within the county, according to court administrators.

Civil cases, traffic court, non-traffic citations and summary cases will continue to be handled at each of the county’s seven district court offices.

Initially, said Tammy Lambie, deputy court administrator, only preliminary hearings in criminal cases filed by state police will be heard at the newly opened court.

That could change as early as next year, Wagner said.

“Initially when we rolled in the state police cases, one of the big problems that we were trying to address was to eliminate patrol officers having to go to seven different district justice offices for their hearings. So by centrally locating it, the officer picks the prisoner up at the jail, comes two blocks down for a hearing, two blocks back to jail. His turnaround time is much, much quicker. He’s back on the road patrolling, where he should be, instead of driving around the county,” Wagner said.

“Hopefully, we can roll the city of Uniontown in easily because Justice (Michael) Metros’ office is only two blocks away. … What we do with Connellsville, Masontown, (Redstone), we are going to have to look at because that can be a little bit of an additional budget expense to municipalities because the officer then is here, rather than in Connellsville. It can create a staffing problem because they have a limited number of people that they are dealing with. The other side of that coin is that they were coming here to pick up the defendant anyway at the jail, so we are eliminating transport at least. Even if we just do it with those defendants that are incarcerated, I think in the long run we are still going to save the local municipalities some lost time,” Wagner said.

Adding the local municipalities is likely to begin, at least in part, next year, he said.

Connellsville police Chief James Capitos expressed some concerns about potential “additional budget expense,” and said he discussed those issues with Wagner and Lambie on Friday.

“That, to me, threw up a red flag,” Capitos said following the open house.

He said he already is working within tight budget constraints, and worried about staffing his station’s shifts if officers are outside the city attending hearings.

Capitos also voiced concern about a potential increase in overtime.

“It’s Nov. 14, and I’m already over budget,” he said.

Wagner said that targeted cases will focus on incarcerated defendants.

“It’s that transport time, that’s one of the principal things we are trying to attack because it’s just dead time. You (police officers) are being a taxi cab,” he said.

Magistrates will rotate their service at central court. When assigned to night court, they also will work out of the Uniontown magisterial office 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Wednesday, at present.

They would return to their home offices for afternoon hearings, Lambie said.

“We have had two days of hearings so far this week. It worked extremely well,” she said.

“We’re hoping this also saves time for the victims,” Lambie said.

“Hopefully, there will be enough efficiency built into the system to preclude multiple continuances so they are not running back and forth, missing work, to attend hearings,” Wagner said.

Wagner said another expected benefit is the expedition of court case dispositions. In cases where a first offense plea is negotiated and probation offered, pleas and sentencings could be done in one month rather than six or seven months.

“The more cases we can fast track, and get to a disposition sooner, the less overcrowding we are going to have on that trial list during the week of (criminal) court. The less likely it’s going to be that (state police) will have to send a trooper to court, only to have a defendant turn around and plead guilty,” Wagner said.

Lt. Jeff Fisher, Uniontown state police station commander, said he expects the new system to prove more efficient and streamlined at the district court level.

“It will definitely cut down on the amount of overtime that is being spent. Being a block, block and a half away (from the jail), five minutes to come down here, having a hearing and come back, saves us (driving) time,” Fisher said.

“We see it as a great benefit. This week we moved through 20 to 30 (cases) each day, and that’s only half a day,” he said.

Currently the county is leasing the space from the city for $1,500 per month, Lambie said.

“We feel that with the closing of (former District Judge Dwight) Shaner’s office, it didn’t cost any more in funding,” she said.

The city paid for the building’s renovations, Mayor Ed Fike said.

City law clerk Kim Marshall estimated those costs at approximately $50,000.

Fike said the city has a two-year contract, which he hopes will continue beyond that period.

No new employees were hired, but two “floating” staff members are now stationed at central court full time, Lambie said.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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