HCC moves forward with law enforcement, emergency responder training site

The Haywood Community College Board of Trustees has given preliminary approval for the construction of a training facility for law enforcement and emergency service workers.

Cops get up the gumption to pull the plug on video sweepstakes

fr sweepstakesPolice across Western North Carolina have been stamping out the last bastions of illegal video gambling machines in recent weeks, calling the bluff of defiant operators who refused to go quietly.

With a nose for trouble, K9s are put on trial

By Paul Clark  • Contributor •

Norris Bunch called his dog Maxo to attention. Maxo, alert and ready, waited for his release.

Barbara Holt, a judge for the U.S. Police Canine Association, gave the go-ahead, and Bunch, a K9 handler at the nuclear Savannah River Site, shouted for Maxo to move.

Laser-quick, Maxo charged toward the “decoy” – a fellow K9 officer acting as a criminal suspect. The decoy had a 25-yard head start on the football field at Waynesville Middle School. And, he certainly had the sympathy of the civilians spending a sunny June morning watching the police dog trials from the stands.

Police beating in Bryson City leads to $22,500 settlement

A mentally ill man got a $22,500 settlement in a lawsuit against a Bryson City police officer who hit him multiple times with a baton and sprayed him with pepper spray.

The settlement came more than three years after the incident, which involved a 25-year-old with schizophrenia. The man sustained physical injuries and mental trauma after a Bryson City police officer hit the man repeatedly with a baton while serving involuntary commitment papers on him outside a downtown pizza restaurant.

The out-of-court settlement was reached through mediation in November.

The settlement is being paid by the town’s insurance company and not out of town coffers. In fact, the town didn’t even know it had been settled, said Bryson Town Manager Larry Callicutt.

Callicutt said he found out last week that the case had been settled by the insurance company back in November.

The suit by Jacob Grant claimed Bryson City Police Office Leon Allen sprayed him with pepper spray and hit him on the head, face, shoulders, stomach, back and legs, even after he was already on the ground. Grant’s family had petitioned for involuntary commitment because they feared Grant was not taking his medication.

When Allen tried to take Grant into custody, Grant asked to see the commitment papers, Allen couldn’t produce them, and a verbal argument ensued that allegedly escalated into Allen beating Grant. Ten witnesses stepped forward and filed police brutality complaints against Allen.

Allen, meanwhile, claimed Grant assaulted him. Grant was charged with assaulting an officer but those charges were dropped when Grant agreed to plead guilt to the lesser charge of obstruction of justice.

Allen was placed on leave while the department conducted an internal investigation, but was eventually reinstated on the force. He later left the Bryson police department and went to work in another county.

The settlement was signed on Bryson City’s behalf by Attorney Sean Perrin with Womble and Carlyle law firm out of Charlotte, who specializes in liability claims against police departments. The insurance company hired and paid for the attorney.

Grant was represented by Asheville attorney Andrew Banzhoff. The civil suit was filed almost two years after the incident, just shy of the statute of limitations cut-off.

Banzhoff said he could not discuss the settlement due to confidentiality provisions.

Magistrate cuts cause consternation for cops

A state plan to eliminate a part-time magistrate in Highlands is being roundly condemned — and resisted — by Macon County law enforcement leaders and government officials.

Slashing the positions in the name of savings has been likened to a cutting-your-nose-off-to-spite-your-face measure. Good on paper, perhaps, if you’re sitting in Raleigh trying to make the numbers add up.

But inane if you’re among those who live in this region and drive the 10 winding mountain miles between Franklin and Highlands — a trip that costs cops and deputies an hour each time they need to charge someone with a crime.

The loss of two magistrates in Jackson County, reducing the number from five to three, is posing problems for the court system there, too, and has prompted official requests that the cash-strapped state Administrative Office of the Courts reconsider the cuts. The last time Jackson had just three magistrates, it was 1979 and the sheriff’s department had 14 employees, said Clerk of Court Ann Melton. Today, Jackson County’s sheriff’s department has 78 employees.

The magistrate situation is OK in Haywood and Swain counties for now, with Haywood standing at five magistrates and small Swain at three, Chief District Judge Richie Holt said last week.

But in light of the cuts in Jackson and Macon, Holt has been forced to reduce the amount of time magistrates in those two counties are available to book suspects, issue warrants and the like. Law enforcement is very unhappy about it, Holt said, and the public is often forced to wait for a magistrate to appear.

There is supposed to be a magistrate on duty 24 hours a day, Holt said. “With three in Jackson County, do the math — we just can’t do it. It’s not possible to have 24-hour, seven-days-a-week coverage,” he said.

Magistrates are on-call for law enforcement when they aren’t physically in their offices.

Elimination would take place in the fall of 2012. Macon County will lose another fulltime magistrate in Franklin, too, in the name of state savings, but it’s the part-time position in Highlands that’s causing the heartburn. That’s because if the elimination happens, Highlands would be left without law enforcement protection while officers make the drive down the mountain to obtain a magistrate’s services in Franklin. Or, more town officers or county deputies would need to be assigned to protect southern Macon County.

Most likely at a much higher cost than what the state is proposing to save, Highlands Police Chief Bill Harrell said. The magistrate in Highlands costs the state $20,000 a year.

“In Raleigh, it looks like 15 minutes (between the towns). It’s actually a 40-minute drive,” Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland said. And that, of course, doesn’t figure in the amount of time officers and deputies spend on individual cases — that could be hours, not minutes; and in the case of mental-health patients, days and not hours.


What do they do?

Magistrates have legal duties in both criminal and civil cases. In many instances, a citizen’s first contact with the judicial system comes via a magistrate. The magistrate determines if, and to what extent, additional action is needed when a police officer or a citizen says that a crime has been committed. Duties include issuing arrest warrants, search warrants, subpoenas and civil warrants. Magistrates conduct bond hearings to set bail and conditions of release when someone is charged with a criminal offense, among many other duties.

Source: N.C. Magistrates Association

New database puts criminal files at law enforcement fingertips

Law enforcement officers and court officials are being trained on how to use a new $17 million state database that pulls together everything known about a criminal to the screen of a laptop.

Officers using the system will know who and what they are dealing with upon arrival at a traffic stop or crime scene. State Controller David McCoy said during a training session in Franklin last week that he is certain the Criminal Justice Law Enforcement Automated Data Services (CJLEADS, for short), will save lives.

Officers and court officials from Jackson, Macon and Swain were at the Franklin training. Similar teaching efforts are under way across the state.

In addition to integrating data, the new system provides an “offender watch” to alert officers and others who might need to know when there is a change in status. For instance, when a warrant is issued on an offender, or if a particular suspect is due in court, officers can receive email alerts.

The database is massive: 41 million files on 13.8 million offenders in North Carolina.

Previously, officers and court officials were forced to search up to seven different systems for the same information, McCoy said. Now, files including the state’s Administrative Office of Courts, the Department of Corrections and sex-offender registry have been merged.

Privacy issues have been considered, and were at the forefront of the database design, the state controller said. Public records on regular Joes and Janes in North Carolina have not been co-mingled with that of criminal offenders.

“And even for bad actors we don’t want to violate anyone’s rights,” McCoy said.

Sondra Phillips, who works in the data integration section of the state controller office, emphasized the system was built using on-the-job suggestions by officers and court personnel. Warnings on an offender come up immediately to help protect those working in the state’s law enforcement field, she said.

Federal agencies also are gaining access, she said, including the FBI, immigration officers and the U.S. Marshals Service. For its part, by June of next year, Phillips said North Carolina hopes to jump through the necessary security hoops to bring national alerts into the state system — such as missing people and wanted suspects.

The Office of the State Controller was selected to rollout the project after building and launching a $100 million payroll system for North Carolina.

The new criminal database will cost taxpayers $8 million a year to maintain.

Jurisdiction quagmire challenges Cherokee courts

Tribal leaders and prosecutors in Cherokee will now have stronger tools to mete out justice to criminals on the reservation, thanks to a bill signed into law by President Obama last year.

The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, approved by Congress and the president in July of last year, gives tribal governments and court systems such as the ones in Cherokee increased power and flexibility in fighting crimes that are committed on their lands.

In the past, the jurisdictional tangle surrounding justice for crimes committed on the reservation, along with limited allowances on punishments, have meant that criminals don’t always get the penalties they may deserve for offenses in Cherokee.

Under old law, the harshest sentence a tribal court could impose for any charge was one year in prison and a $5,000 fine, which pales in comparison to the maximum penalties allowed at the state and federal level.

Now, tribes are free to approve penalties of up to three years and are allowed to stack up to three charges. That means that, if adopted by Tribal Council, multiple severe offenders could see as much as nine years of prison time.

To Tribal Prosecutor Jason Smith, this is a huge accomplishment for tribal justice and will change the face of many of his cases.

“It’s the biggest change that the new law has brought about as far a criminal liability is concerned,” said Smith. “I’m hopeful that it will allow the tribal court to prosecute and to punish a broader range of crimes more appropriately, to more appropriately and effectively deal with more serious crime than they have done in the past.”


A convoluted court

Committing a crime in Cherokee – and being prosecuted for it – isn’t as cut and dried as it would be outside the reservation. Not everyone who breaks the law in Cherokee can expect to go to tribal court for it, nor can everyone expect that they’ll be held accountable by state or federal law enforcement. As Smith puts it, “jurisdiction is a huge quagmire. It’s not as simple as that.”

To begin with, only enrolled members of the Eastern Band, enrolled members of other federally recognized tribes and non-U.S. citizens can be punished by tribal courts. In Cherokee, they have an extra provision for others who want to fall under the tribe’s authority – a waiver of jurisdiction, in legal speak – but it’s entirely optional and not without controversy.

Everybody else – which includes non-Indian local residents, American tourists, casino patrons – will get pursued by the long arm of some non-Native law, be it local for piddly offenses such as speeding, state for bigger but still victimless crimes, or federal for more major crimes or those perpetrated by Indians against non-Indian victims, and vice versa.

To call it a quagmire is putting it kindly, but according to Smith and Don Gast, his cohort in the U.S. Attorney’s office who prosecutes Cherokee’s federal cases, they do a good job of working within that framework.

According to Gast, his office doesn’t decline tribal cases in the same way they would with non-tribal cases. Of the many cases that come across a normal federal prosecutor’s desk, many are just too small-time to warrant attention in federal courts.  Gast doesn’t do that with cases that come to him from Cherokee.

“We don’t decline cases in our districts on the basis of crimes being not big enough in scope like we do on state cases,” said Gast, because they realize that for these cases, many of which are violent crimes such as rape and child abuse, federal court is their one chance to bring the alleged criminal to justice.


Bringing order out of chaos

Such crimes are the very reason the Tribal Law and Order Act was created. An Amnesty International study found that Native American women were more than twice as likely to suffer domestic abuse than other women in the United States, and a separate Department of Justice study found that one third of Native American women will experience rape in their lifetime.

Although neither of these unusually high statistics is caused by the difficult maze of prosecution and justice tribal jurisdiction creates, both named it as a barrier to lowering those high rates.

In light of that, the other important provision the law makes is a recommendation for formalized procedures for sending cases to federal court and closer communication with the local U.S. Attorney’s office. There’s even a provision for cross-training a tribal prosecutor as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney, or SAUSA, who would be able to follow cases off the reservation and into federal court and prosecute them there.

In Cherokee, they’re keen to see more cases federally prosecuted. At a special meeting on law and order held last week, more than one member expressed frustration at what they perceive as a high number of cases that don’t get taken to federal court, leaving victims without justice.

Council Member Teresa McCoy believe that some of the burden for making sure fewer cases fall through the cracks should fall to the council.

“Well, if we’re telling our public it just wasn’t big enough for the feds to take, then our laws should handle it,” said McCoy, advocating for adoption of the stiffer penalties the new federal law allows and possible banishment from the reservation for non-tribal members who can’t be prosecuted in tribal court.

“Every time there’s a dismissal there’s a victim and that victim got no help,” she said.

“We still have a way to help ease the pain of the public.”


No state “safety net”

Gast wouldn’t entirely agree with that assessment. He’s firm on the fact that he prosecutes any and every tribal case that comes before him unless it’s out of his jurisdiction or it’s a bad case. And, he said, because of the nature of many of the crimes – domestic, child and sexual abuse, among other violent crimes – there are more bad cases than a normal federal prosecutor, who mostly deals with proactive cases like sting operations, would see.

The sad truth, said Gast, is that often victims won’t or are afraid to speak, recant their stories or don’t want to prosecute their attackers. And this is true across the nation, not just on the reservation.

He maintains that, while tribal cases may be declined more often than non-tribal federal cases, that declination rate isn’t really any higher than the rates for similar crimes in state courts. Unreported or unprosecuted violent crimes are part of a broader, national trend that often has nothing to do with the prosecutor and everything to do with the victim.

“The mission of the U.S. Attorney’s office is to prosecute crime,” said Gast. “And in Indian country, the scope of that mission is broader because we don’t have the safety net of the state court.”

Still, in Indian Country, many would like to see the cracks that criminals have long slipped through closed, in whatever way they can.

Though Gast doesn’t see a need for it, Smith said he’d like to look into the possibility of a SAUSA for Cherokee. “It’s certainly something I think a lot of the public here would be in favor of,” said Smith, an observation that was proven true by public sentiments expressed at last week’s meeting.

But overall, Smith echoed Gast, noting the good working relationship that he enjoys with Gast’s office, a benefit not enjoyed by many western tribes, who are laboring with overworked prosecutors in huge districts.

“We’re in better shape than a lot of places and a lot of reservations because we have that cooperation and we have had with the U.S. Attorney,” said Smith. “But could it be better? Absolutely.”

SCC eyed for federal law enforcement training

Four donated modular units should help ease a space crunch at the Public Safety Training Center in Macon County, but the fix could be short-lived.

The training center, run by Southwestern Community College, might soon become one of a handful of sites in the country where federal law enforcement officers can get high-level training.

While thousands cycle through every year for basic police, fire and rescue training, demand may be stiffest for a handful of coveted slots in a four-month academy for federal park rangers.

Men and women seeking seasonal, or temporary, law enforcement jobs with the National Park Service train there now. But the college hopes to offer more federal training next year — by increasing the number of academies it holds and adding training for fulltime federal law enforcement officers.

The National Park Service would be the primary beneficiary. Some other federal agencies also could use men and women commissioned through the training center.

“There’s a lot of potential with this federal accreditation,” said Curtis Dowdle, director of the training center. “But we would have to meet a number of policies and regulations, such as instructors who hold certain credentials, equipment requirements, enough square-feet-per-student requirements.

“Record keeping is probably the biggest part — we’d have to house the records on the students forever, and that’s a big space issue,” Dowdle said.

Right now, all training for fulltime federal law enforcement officers takes place at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, headquartered in Glynco, Ga. Dowdle said the federal government estimates having a select number of sites across the nation offer the classes could save taxpayers more than $40,000 per government employee.

Space problems

Macon County Schools donated the modular units to SCC, and county commissioners last week agreed to spend $17,500 from the county’s contingency fund to pay to move them. They were previously used by two of the county’s schools for additional classroom space. Macon County has been building new schools and no longer needs them.

“It services the whole region, even the nation,” Ronnie Beale, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said of the center.

Steve Stinnett, chief ranger for the Blue Ridge Parkway, agreed that the training center plays an important role.

“The center has been very helpful to us,” said Stinnett. “They’ve really made it available.”

In addition to having access to a pool of qualified applicants when hiring, Stinnett said the National Park Service receives a professional boost because rangers working on the Parkway or in the Smokies are sometimes tapped to teach at the training center.

“People who teach something tend to do it better,” he said.

In addition to classrooms, a computer lab and more, the center has a driver-training course, shooting range and a 4,100-square-foot, three-story building used to train fire and rescue workers.

Each modular unit will provide an additional 864 square feet of space to the training center.

Simulators for emergency medical service workers will be set up in one unit. A use-of-force simulator for law enforcement officers will be housed in another, as will exercise equipment. One unit will add general classroom space.

But it’s doubtful the four units will provide adequate room for long. In addition to seeking the federal accreditation required to train fulltime federal law enforcement officers, Dowdle and SCC are considering other expansions.

‘Growing smart’

Two, 30-member academies for training the seasonal federal workers are currently offered. The academy starting in January has a waiting list; 15 men and women already have signed up for the second academy, which isn’t until August of next year. SCC, in response to the demand, is considering holding three academies each year.

Federal Law Enforcement Training Center officials did not respond by press time to an interview request.

“If we grow, we want to grow smart,” Dowdle said, emphasizing the community college’s need to weigh each expansion carefully.

An academy lasts four months. If another one is held, SCC — which under state law cannot operate student housing — will need to find more places for the students to live. The students now rent directly from people in the community.

“We must find more housing, unless we have an investor come forward who wants to put something up,” Dowdle said.

A state-of-the-art firing range is also being considered. This would be an outdoor range similar to one used by the federal government in Glynco. A bullet trap system would collect the lead, protecting both people and the environment. The firing range currently used by SCC is behind the water-treatment plant in Sylva. It has no trap system and just 10 lanes. That’s a problem when the community college is trying to train 30 cadets at a time, Dowdle said.

Lawyer’s actions aroused suspicion among clients, law enforcement community

An attorney that forged judges’ signatures was caught thanks to the sharp eyes of a law enforcement officer, a fellow attorney and a court clerk who noticed red flags.

But for at least a year, fraudulent driving privileges provided to clients by Attorney John Lewis remained under the radar. The scam began unraveling last fall, leading to a state investigation and culminating with guilty pleas by Lewis in court this week.

The first sign of the fraud arose after one of the drivers sporting a fake document from Lewis was stopped by a law enforcement officer in Swain County. When asked for his license, the driver pulled out the limited driving privileges he’d gotten from Lewis.

“The officer found it was suspicious in nature just by looking at it,” said Grayson Edwards, a State Bureau of Investigation agent who investigated the case.

The biggest red flag was that Lewis had signed his own name on the line where a clerk of court is supposed to sign. A signature of Judge Richie Holt also appeared on the document. But the officer was skeptical that Judge Holt would have granted limited driving privileges to this particular driver. So the officer called Holt, who confirmed he’d never signed such a document for that person.

The confused driver called Lewis to find out what was going on. Lewis owned up to the fraud, but asked the driver to keep it under wraps. Lewis told the driver to call the clerk of court and say that he’d gotten the document in the mail.

“After (the driver) hung up the phone, he changed his mind and decided he didn’t want to lie for something that he had not done. So he called the Swain County Clerk’s office back and told them where he’d gotten it,” Edwards recounted in court.

In a second case, a Swain County driver bearing one of Lewis’ forged documents was stopped by a police officer, this time outside the region. The driver whipped out his limited driving privileges, but when the officer pulled the driver’s record, it didn’t show up in the computer and the driver got a ticket.

Confused why his limited driving privileges weren’t valid, the driver called Lewis. Lewis asked for the document back without saying why. The driver got suspicious and photocopied it first.

The driver took the photocopy to another attorney to figure out what was going on, all the while hoping he could get the limited driving privileges back. But the attorney instead referred it to the district attorney’s office.

In yet another bizarre incident, Lewis forged the name of Judge Monica Leslie in a custody case terminating parental rights. No sooner had he filed the fraudulent court order with the Jackson County Clerk of Court than he apparently thought better of it and asked for it back. The clerk wouldn’t give it back, since a signed order submitted as part of the court record can’t be removed from the file. An agitated Lewis came back twice over the course of the day trying to retrieve the document.

“At one point he even went around the partition in the clerk’s office with a sticky note that said the order was void and put it on the file,” said Reid Taylor, assistant district attorney. “The clerk had some serious issues with Mr. Lewis and the way he was conducting himself over that document and was raising all kind of red flags.”

Lewis grew up in Jackson County and came from a low-income family, according to Lewis’ attorney. He excelled in basketball, playing at Smoky Mountain High School then at Western Carolina University and finally Mars Hill. From Mars Hill, he went to law school at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island before returning to Jackson County to practice law. Lewis and his wife live in Glenville.

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey said Lewis’ actions are puzzling for a person who worked so hard to go to law school.

“To come back home where he grew up and throw it all away? For who? People who weren’t entitled to drive?” Bonfoey asked. “Enabling people who shouldn’t be on the road to drive is appalling to all of us. It is appalling to my office, and it is appalling to all of us as attorneys.”

Investigators did not determine what payment if any Lewis got from his clients in exchange for purportedly landing them limited driving privileges, Bonfoey said.

There may be more people out there who think they have a valid document from Lewis. If you are one of those people, contact the sheriff’s office in your county.

Waiting for the smoke to clear: Officers deal with the professional and emotional aftermath of using a gun in the line of duty

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Law enforcement officers might spend their entire careers without ever firing their gun in the line of duty. It is a distinction most wear like a badge of honor.

For those officers who are not so lucky, the experience leaves an indelible mark that may carry through their professional and personal lives. Such was the case for Sgt. Jonathan Phillips, a Macon County Sheriff’s Deputy, when he and fellow officers became involved in an arrest gone awry in April 2004.

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