December 14, 2012

Portland prosecutor seeks change in nuisance penalties

Numerous 'quality-of-life' complaints are difficult to get taken seriously in the same courts that handle murder cases.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The city's neighborhood prosecutor wants to make community service a potential punishment for violating a city ordinance.

Trish McAllister said state law allows courts to mete out community service only for Class D and E misdemeanors. When it comes to city ordinances, courts can levy only fines.

The problem? Many people who violate city ordinances -- by urinating in public, allowing a dog to run at-large or littering, for example – cannot afford fines. And their cases now must be heard in the same courtrooms where murder, assault and robbery cases are heard.

"I'd like to see if we can pursue a very simple statutory change to add city ordinance violations to the statute, so we can be much more effective in asking for community service," McAllister said. "I think it's something the community wants to see."

Mayor Michael Brennan said city officials will meet Friday with Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley to discuss the issue.

McAllister said the city will discuss with Saufley ways to separate nuisance complaints from more serious offenses, either by dealing with nuisances at a designated time or by setting up a magistrate or community board system to review cases outside the criminal courts.

McAllister was hired in 2010 to pursue quality-of-life issues such as graffiti, disorderly houses, littering, fireworks, public urination and other ordinance violations.

"The city has been much more aggressive and much more effective, to a point, in pursuing these ordinance violations that affect the quality of life," she said.

Her goal is voluntary compliance, and she often resolves complaints with warnings. But McAllister often ends up in criminal court. It can be difficult to get nuisance complaints taken seriously in courtrooms that handle murders and assaults.

And even when she gets convictions, people often can't afford the fines, she said.

McAllister relayed an anecdote to the city's legislative delegation on Thursday to highlight the need for such a change.

She tried recently to get a judge to fine a Peaks Island woman who regularly allowed her dog to run at-large. Before her case, the judge heard arguments about an assault in the East End that left the victim in a coma. There was emotional, gruesome testimony, she said, leaving observers clearly shaken.

When the city's case regarding the dog was called, the defendant highlighted the absurdity of the nuisance case and the judge appeared to agree, McAllister said.

"I wanted to say that her dog's been running loose all summer, driving everyone crazy," McAllister told city officials. "And it finally crashed a wedding, jumped on a table and ate some of the wedding food, and people were really angry about it. ... In that courtroom with those stories, it's lost. But the community complains to all of us about these little cases every day."

The city's legislators supported the effort to adjust the statute.

"I got it," said Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland. "Easy."

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, said the court system really needs a magistrate to handle quality-of-life issues, because the criminal courts are so busy.

"You're singing my song," McAllister said.

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

 

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