A judicial candidate is taking issue with his opponent’s handling of a Sobriety Court in Conway.
Mike Murphy, currently the Conway city attorney, is running against incumbent Circuit Judge Amy Brazil. Brazil was appointed to the Faulkner County District Court after the death of long-serving judge Russell "Jack" Roberts in 2010. In 2011, Brazil began organizing a Sobriety Court as an alternative sentencing structure for repeat DWI offenders.
Murphy claims that Sobriety Court, which Brazil included in her 2012 campaign advertising, existed in name only, and effectively allowed a number of repeat DWI offenders to avoid mandatory jail time without the enhanced supervision and alcohol treatment courses that were supposed to come with correctly administered Sobriety Courts.
The Log Cabin has spoken briefly and off-the-record with Brazil this week, and on Thursday she issued a written response stating that her Sobriety Court was in its "initial steps" when the first offenders were selected to go through it. These offenders were sentenced to "a specific time in jail, court cost and fine," Brazil states, and were ordered to regularly submit to alcohol monitoring via a breath alcohol monitor connected to their home phone, to attend AA/NA meetings, and, for some, drug tests. This is in addition to the vehicle ignition breathalyzers ordered for DWI offenders.
"Since it was a voluntary program," Brazil continues, "the number of participants in the early phase was not significant but it was growing. It was not only a learning process for us, but also for the defense attorneys.
"I feel confident that if I had been elected in 2012 the program would be fully implemented by now and working to help individuals obtain sobriety, which would benefit not only them, but our entire community.
Brazil lost her election in 2012, and was later appointed to the bench in Faulkner County Circuit Court.
Murphy claims in a document released to media that he asked for his office, which prosecutes most of the DWI cases in District Court, to be involved in the Sobriety Court. "But Judge Brazil declined, saying that a deputy prosecuting attorney from [20th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney] Cody Hiland’s office, Graham Jones, would serve as the ‘prosecutor’ component of the ‘sobriety court team.’"
Hiland said on Thursday that his office sent Jones to a 4-day Sobriety Court training program in Harrison along with the rest of the Sobriety Court team, and "subsequent to that training, to my knowledge, there has been no participation in, or knowledge of, any sort of Sobriety Court by my office."
Court documents also show that a some offenders charged with DWI had their charge amended to DUI by Brazil. This would appear to be impermissible under Arkansas law (A.C.A. § 5-65-107(a), which states that a person arrested for DWI "shall be tried on those charges or plead to those charges, and no such charges shall be reduced."
Also, many offenders did not serve Arkansas statutory minimum jail sentences for a third-offense DWI coming less than five years after the first-offense DWI (90 days) and for offenders convicted of DWI while driving on a license that is suspended for DWI (10 days).
Dustin Chapman, a Conway attorney who was on the Sobriety Court team as a public defender, said that he questioned how the Sobriety Court program could "reconcile this mandatory jail time requirement." Chapman said that he understood not imposing the mandatory jail sentences was a standard practice in the state’s several other Sobriety Courts.
A judge can order community service instead of these mandatory jail sentences under Arkansas law, but only when the judge "clearly set[s] forth in written findings the reasons for the order of community service." It seems that in the cases of these DWI offenders in Sobriety Court the written findings were not done or made a part of the case records, according to Murphy.
"If there was [such an order] I never saw one," Deputy Court Clerk Cindy Nutter, a member of the Sobriety Court Team, said on Thursday.
Nutter said that she didn’t want to "throw anyone under the bus," and the Sobriety Court "wasn’t a disaster; good was accomplished." But it wasn’t run by Brazil exactly as the team had been trained that an ideal Sobriety Court would be run.
The training session, Nutter said, gave the team a "a step-by-step guide to what we were supposed to do," and that, as they were trained, the team was supposed to meet regularly and all decisions as to what offenders would be accepted as candidates for Sobriety Court would be made by the team. However, many of these decisions were made unilaterally by Brazil, Nutter said.
One example is that the team was trained that all Sobriety Court offenders would be accepted into the program only after they were convicted. However, some were accepted into the program and given enhanced monitoring before they were convicted.
"For the people that were involved, the defendants, I do think that it was helpful for them because we did take extra time with them and extra care, and we did everything we could to help them be successful," Nutter said. "But there wasn’t actually a ‘sobriety court.’
"She (Brazil) had defendants come back several times for reviews, to make sure they were doing what they were supposed to do," Nutter continued. "And if they were on an alcohol monitor, and those are expensive, she would reduce their fines in recognition of that expense."
According to Chapman, the question of whether Sobriety Court existed asks for a more complicated answer than "yes" or "no."
"We got trained and they showed us a model of how it would work, and we did come up with so some ideas with it, and those got implemented right away," Chapman said. "We had breath monitors in their houses and required 12-step programs — it was innovative stuff that had not been done before. [Sobriety Court] never came to the goal we were working toward, but it wasn’t a fiction either."
In November of 2012 Brazil amended a DWI offender’s sentence issued in June of that year ordering Sobriety Court supervision. "Since [the June sentence] was entered," the Amend Order effecting the new sentence states, "’Sobriety Court’ has not come into existence (here Brazil has included in pen "due to change in judicial officers, AB"), wherefore the defendant cannot comply with said requirements through no fault of his own," and that the defendant had completed all other requirements "other than Sobriety Court which does not exist."
(Staff writer Joe Lamb, can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1277. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)