County Attorney Melton offers update on 2022

Clay County Commission

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Clay County Attorney Brian Melton reported to the Clay County Commission Tuesday that his office has nearly cleared the case backlog that built up at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The department’s caseload, he said, has remained “pretty steady,” with 2,031 handled during 2022 – well below the record number of 2,510 in 2019 and fewer than the 2021 total of 2,180. Crime, he told commissioners at their regular meeting, “generally remains steady based on population growth and drug use within the community.”

CHIPS (Child in Need of Protective Services) cases continue to increase, he said, due to many of the same reasons that affect the crime rate in general, including drug and alcohol use and mental health issues. Commitments for mental health issues, he added, represent one of the largest increases in numbers that the attorney’s office deals with. He attributed the growth in numbers to post-COVID trauma and chemical use.

He reported that he, his chief assistants Pam Foss and Katie Stock, and the staff of 10 attorneys participated in a total of 19 criminal jury trials in 2022. A verdict was reached in 15 of the cases, with  guilty verdicts rendered in 11 of those. Three were deemed mistrials due to to COVID. Eleven verdicts that were appealed and affirmed, one by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Among sentences issued were a total of 255 months in four cases of child sexual abuse or pornography; 99 months in two cases of felony DWI; 608 months for four convictions for assault; 472 months in five drug-related cases; 150 months in one case of second-degree murder, and a life sentence in one case of first-degree murder. (Minnesota sentences are reported in months rather than years.)

According to Pam Foss, the chief assistant who heads the criminal division, the number of property crimes prosecuted in Clay County has continued its rise. Included in 2022’s total are about 170 thefts, 80 burglaries, and 22 cases of damage to property. The numbers of felony domestic assaults and assaults in general are down, while criminal sexual assaults show a slight increase. Drug crimes prosecuted by both the county and city of Moorhead show a sharp decrease for 2022, she said, but added, “I think those numbers are somewhat deceptive.”

Both Melton and Foss noted that the county’s three specialty courts have shown positive results. Eighteen people are currently participating in Drug Court, which has held eight graduations over the past year. All, Foss said, were employed and had maintained sobriety for at least one year. The much smaller Veterans Court has one person currently moving through the program, which – like Drug Court – focuses on treatment.

The third specialty court, Domestic Violence Court, has a different focus, Foss said – accountability. The program has been set back by the pandemic and the end of its sources of funding.

She said the attorney’s office is looking forward to the launch of a fourth, the DWI Court, that’s currently in the works. Felony cases of driving while intoxicated, nearly 80 in 2022, have shown a sharp increase over the levels of 2020 and 2021, though they still totaled fewer that the 90-plus offenses tried in 2019.

Katie Stock, the chief assistant who heads the civil division, detailed the numbers of cases involving children in need of protective services, adoptions, child support, juvenile crime and traffic. The juvenile crime/traffic area utilizes the county’s Restorative Justice program. She reported that 262 juvenile files were opened in 2022 (and 242 closed). Eighty-two adults were tried in traffic court; a total of 105 files were opened last year, and 159 were closed.

Melton reported that his office’s Victim Services division served 881 victims during 2022 – compared with 900 in 2019, 951 in 2020, and 1,010 in 2021. The office assists victims of crime to complete restitution requests and reparation forms. It also teams up with other organizations to work on community issues, including the Elder Abuse and Human Trafficking committees, Domestic Violence Court, the Clay County Juvi Law Committee, Clay County Collaborative and Safe Roads Coalition.

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