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Rule puts Cumberland town court in jeopardy

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CUMBERLAND — Cumberland’s new town court is getting pushback from Hancock County officials who say the town put the cart before the horse in launching a judicial branch.

The court opened in January to hear mostly traffic ticket citations. It’s held in town hall, which is on the Marion County side of the community. But per state law, citations that originate on the Hancock County side cannot be heard there.

Since half of Cumberland is in Hancock County and half is in Marion County, Cumberland Judge Leroy Wheeler asked county commissioners last week if he could hold court every once in a while in the Hancock County Courthouse for cases that initiated in Hancock County.

But Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tami Napier and Superior Court 2 Judge Dan Marshall voiced concerns.

Marshall says that, per the state’s constitution, offenses must be tried in the county where the citation is written. Each county must also come up with its own local filing rules, and all infractions are supposed to be filed in Superior Court 2 if they occurred in Hancock County.

“I’m just trying to make sure we’re following requirements of local filing rules,” Marshall said. “Our local rule does not include Cumberland Town Court. That doesn’t mean it can’t be amended.”

The Cumberland Town Court has been in the making almost 10 years. Police Chief Mike Crooke said the idea was first talked about in 2004 as a way to save time and money for the police department. The plan came to fruition last year, and Wheeler was chosen in the municipal election as the town’s first judge.

The theory behind a town court, Crooke said, is to save money and manpower on the police department. If officers just had to show up to court at town hall as opposed to driving to Indianapolis or Greenfield, he said, it could save the town money.

Now, he’s not sure how the court will work if there isn’t cooperation from Hancock County officials.

“It’ll get worked out however it’s supposed to be and we’ll continue, or else we’ll have to drop it entirely,” said Crooke. “We have not had a great deal of court cases (but) what I do know is, the cases we have had had it has been very convenient for the officers because they don’t have to drive to anyplace; they don’t have to drive 13 miles downtown or to one of the satellite courts (in Marion County).”

In addition to space at the courthouse, Wheeler said he would need the county prosecutor’s office to sign off on a special deputy prosecutor out of Marion County to work on cases for Cumberland.

Napier said the Hancock County prosecutor’s office is not comfortable with supervising someone they don’t know, nor does the office have the manpower to send its own staff to a night court.

Napier is also concerned that the Cumberland town court would reduce Hancock County’s chances of the state approving a fourth court. The county is one of several waiting on establishing an additional court, and caseload numbers are a significant factor.

She said Hancock County officials have had very little communication with Cumberland officials about the court. The first time they heard about it, Napier said, was earlier this year when an open house was held after it already launched.

Wheeler said he was surprised at the pushback.

“We had been working with all of those agencies, and when that meeting occurred, it was apparent to me after a while there is some opposition to it,” Wheeler said. “I’m going to go back to the drawing board to see if perhaps things can be worked out.”

County commissioners did not grant permission for the town court to use the courthouse. Commissioner Derek Towle said it seems like town officials were premature when setting up court by not consulting Hancock County officials.

“I feel like we’ve been placed in an awkward position here,” President Tom Stevens added. “There are things that need to be worked out before we make a decision.”

Many Cumberland town officials thought that the town could hold court on cases from both sides of the county line, even though town hall, where court is held, is on the Marion County side.

“We were under the impression it could be done here at town hall because it’s the town of Cumberland and our police officers cover both sides,” said Grace Heck, clerk-treasurer and also a member of the committee that set up the court.

Town manager Jeff Sheridan also assisted in setting it up, and he said the question of where court should be held was raised.

“I remember that being discussed, but there was not a consensus on exactly how that would work,” Sheridan said. “Some folks said, since we were in both counties, we could hear a Hancock County resident in town hall. And there were those that said, ‘Well, I’m not so sure.’ I believe they just decided rather than run the risk of being a challenge, we would be willing to send the judge out there (to Greenfield) if they would allow us to set up … as needed.”

Being a community straddling a county line has caused difficulties for town officials in the past, from writing grants to getting new police radio equipment. Crooke said they modeled the town court after the court in Avon, but Avon is not in two counties.

Data has not been compiled yet on whether the town court actually does save time or money for the police department. Still, the town court does make more money based on citations. Heck said before town court, every citation garnered Cumberland $4 and the rest of the money went to the county or state for processing. Now, for a typical speeding ticket the town can keep $13.50.

There are, however, costs in running the court. Wheeler’s salary is $17,700 a year, and the town also pays a bailiff and prosecutor on an hourly or case-by-case basis.

Cumberland town officials say they don’t believe a Hancock County case has been erroneously heard in their town court yet. Ten or fewer cases are heard every month, Wheeler said, as most people pay their tickets without protesting them in court.

Crooke said most infractions are on the Marion County side of the town.

Town courts are a thing of the past as far as Hancock County is concerned. While there are city and town courts across the state, Hancock County in the mid-1970s was a pilot county that eliminated town courts.

Attorney Ray Richardson said when he was a state lawmaker he worked on legislation that eliminated two town courts here. That was at the time when the entire state was eliminating justices of the peace because, Richardson said, they were often considered biased.

He said Cumberland seems like it’s going backward from the work he did to eliminate courts here.

Meanwhile, Wheeler says he wants the town court to be able to exercise jurisdiction that was granted to it when the Cumberland Town Council passed the ordinance to create the court.

“We feel that the (town) statute granted us jurisdiction throughout the town of Cumberland, and that happens to include some areas in Hancock County,” Wheeler said. “The opposition that was given was a surprise to us because we have had discussions with the judges as well as the prosecutor. I don’t intend to make this any kind of a turf war, but I’d like to try to work it out with them.”

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