Hampshire Superior Court clerk pledges changes after audit flags evidence security, other issues

Last modified: Wednesday, February 26, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — A state audit of Hampshire Superior Court cited “deficiencies” including logging of evidence, collecting fees and lax oversight.

Released Thursday, the audit covers the period from July 1, 2011, through March 31, 2013.

“Reliance on past practice, poor oversight and a lack of communication have contributed to the deficiencies we found. A consistent adherence to state laws and procedures is necessary for an equal administration of justice,” State Auditor Suzanne Bump said in a statement. “I hope the court will find this audit a useful tool in improving its operations.”

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Hampshire Superior Court Clerk Harry Jekanowski said Thursday that a separate audit conducted during the same period by the state’s Trial Court Department found “no material deficiencies” in the court.

Nevertheless, Jekanowski said if changes are called for, they will be made.

“We take these audits very seriously,” Jekanowski said. “If there’s something we can do better, we’ll do it. We welcome the information from the auditor.”

The audit itself took about 10 weeks, according to Jekanowski.

In one section of the 40-page report released by Bump’s office, auditors said the clerk’s office doesn’t have a log that adequately identifies evidence. It also said evidence is not adequately safeguarded in a secure area.

“Hampshire Superior Court maintained custody of evidence exhibits, including cash, drugs and guns that were not adequately secured from theft or loss,” according to the report.

“As a result the office cannot be certain that evidence in its possession related to 80 criminal cases which could include high-risk evidence like drugs, money and weapons is properly secured and accounted for,” the report reads.

According to the report, when asked why high-risk evidence wasn’t stored in a more secure location, Jekanowski replied that evidence is stored in the most secure location available. He also said he requested a safe in which to store evidence from the trial court but has yet to receive one.

As far as a central evidence log, Jekanowski said by telephone Thursday that he feels that would be redundant.

Jekanowski said a list of evidence is already kept within the case file it relates to; a system that has worked for the 31 years he’s held the position.

“If it works, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, rather than create another level of bureaucracy,” Jekanowski said Thursday.

Auditors also determined the court isn’t adequately collecting court-ordered legal counsel fees.

According to the report, the court isn’t “consistently complying” with requirements for collecting legal counsel fees.

“As a result, the commonwealth may not be receiving all the money to which it is entitled,” according to the report.

According to the report, 14 cases were identified where defendants had lawyers appointed for them and ordered to pay the standard $150 legal counsel fee.

In five of those cases, the report says, the fee was not paid within 60 days and the “appropriate state agencies” were not notified of the outstanding balances as required by law.

In the audit sample, four of the cases had bail associated with them, and in two of those bail was returned in full before the legal counsel fee was paid, according to the report.

In a written response to the auditors included in the report, Jekanowski said fee collection is handled by the Probation Department, which doesn’t notify the clerk’s office when fees go unpaid.

Jekanowski said in his response that practice will change. Once notified by probation that a fee is outstanding, the Registry of Motor Vehicles, Department of Revenue and the Department of Transitional Assistance will be notified.

As for the two cases where bail was retuned before legal fees were paid, arrangements had been made to have those fees paid during a period of probation, Jekanowski said in his response.

“Based on their comments, both the clerk of courts and the chief probation officer are taking measures to address our concerns in this area,” according to the report.

The audit is also critical of how the court handles decisions to allow defendants on probation to pay a monthly supervision fee or to perform community service instead.

The audit claims some judges leave it up to a defendant’s probation officer whether to require the fee or to allow community service, contrary to state law.

Additionally, the audit said the probation office has no consistent method to track community service hours to make sure defendants are complying with their probation conditions.

“The probation office cannot readily determine the value, performance and likelihood of completion of community service hours,” the report reads.

In their written response to the audit, court officials noted judges will sometimes order a defendant to either pay the fee or do community service and leave it up to the discretion of the of the probation officer due to the court’s schedule being too busy to go through the process of determining whether a defendant is unable to pay the fee.

The audit also recommended a system to track community service hours, a recommendation the department agreed to.

Auditors also found that approximately $34,000 in restitution money has not been paid out to victims involved in eight cases, some of which date back to 2000.

The written response noted that sometimes restitution payments to victims is delayed while the district attorney’s office determines who should receive restitution and in what amounts. During those delays victims will sometimes move and not inform the district attorney or the court of their new address, resulting in checks not being delivered and sent back. At that point the money is re-deposited into the restitution account, according to the court.

The audit recommended the probation and district attorney’s offices should collaborate to find victims’ addresses and the amounts they are owed as soon as possible.

If checks are still undeliverable, the money should be turned over to the state treasurer for deposit into the abandoned property account.

The Probation Department said it will adopt the recommendation.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.

Audit by GazetteNET