Court systems that serve Leadville and Lake County are noticing a decrease in case filings amid the ongoing pandemic and a variety of issues for local law enforcement. Yet court officials are not convinced that crime is down.
Lake County Combined Court, which includes dockets for county court and district court, and Leadville Municipal Court serve a variety of functions. County court addresses civil cases under $25,000, misdemeanors and traffic infractions, while district court handles civil cases over $25,000, felonies, domestic relations and more. Municipal court, on the other hand, deals primarily with violations of city laws within city limits such as traffic infractions and minor disturbances.
Over the last few years, Lake County Court has experienced a decrease in new cases filed. In 2016, Lake County Court filed 1,278 cases. Five years later, that figure has decreased to 669 cases, according to annual reports published by the Colorado Judicial Branch.
Since 2016, annual case filings for Lake County Court have decreased steadily each year. From 2016 to 2017, annual filings decreased by 98 cases. A similar drop occurred from 2017 to 2018. In 2018, Lake County Court handled 290 fewer cases than 2019. Once the pandemic took hold in 2020, case filings dropped by 131, decreasing again slightly in 2021.
According to Lake County Judge Jonathan Shamis, who sometimes also serves on district court, the decrease in county cases is due to a number of factors, including the pandemic, inadequate holding facilities and staffing shortages within the Lake County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO).
Currently, inmates arrested by LCSO are transported to Washington, Teller or Adams counties because LCSO does not have a jail. Shamis said LCSO’s current intake process creates an impossibility for arraigning arrests and strains LCSO resources, which are already limited. As a result, Lake County Combined Court has been more selective of which cases will appear on the docket.
Sheriff Amy Reyes discussed a number of these issues with the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, including a need for local holding cells and staffing shortages. The sheriff could not be reached for comment before the Herald’s print deadline.
Leadville Municipal Judge Chris Floyd echoed some of Shamis’ observations, stating that monthly municipal court cases have decreased recently. Floyd added that the court was averaging five to 10 new cases a month before the Leadville Police Department experienced a wave of resignations last year and monthly cases have stayed down ever since. Floyd said she is unaware of any other explanation for the decline other than law enforcement staffing issues.
“Crime in Lake County has not dropped,” said Shamis, “but our ability to enforce crime has been impacted by inadequate resources for local law enforcement.”
Despite the decrease in case filings for local court systems, the Fifth Judicial District, which is made up of Lake, Summit, Eagle and Clear Creek counties, has reported fairly consistent case filings over the last few years, with slight decreases. District Attorney (DA) Heidi McCollum, who is based out of Eagle County, said that the pandemic has not significantly impacted the court system she serves.
McCollum added that the pandemic has introduced a host of separate complexities, such as technological failures during virtual court appearances. The impact of appearing in court has also been lost during the pandemic, the DA said. Attorneys are sometimes unable to confer in person and court statements carry less weight.
The pandemic has also introduced several disruptions to court schedules, from late appearances because of technological failures to overall closures of court. Just last week, the Fifth Judicial District Chief Judge Paul Dunkelman suspended all jury trials until Jan. 28 due to a regional surge in COVID-19 cases.
Although annual filings within Lake County District Court have not decreased significantly, the number of cases with a mental health component for Lake County have increased in recent years. In 2019, Lake County counted two cases with a mental health component in district court. In 2020, the figure increased to six. Last year, cases with a mental health component nearly doubled to 11, with eight short-term instances and three 72-hour hold occurrences.
McCollum said the rise in mental health cases is partially due to the pandemic, which increased stress and anxiety for many people battling mental illness. Shamis added that the increase is also due to more awareness of mental health. For instance, cases with a mental health component that may have been tried as criminal in the past are now considered in a more wholistic light.
“These aren’t hardened criminals,” said McCollum. “They are struggling with very real things in their lives. We have a responsibility to review these cases fairly.”