Objection: Court wants empty Room No. 5 made operational

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AURORA | From his seat on the bench at Aurora Municipal Court, presiding City Judge Shawn Day regularly finds himself staring at a math problem with no easy answers.

A few weeks ago, Day had 15 cases ready for trial on the same day and only three courtrooms in the city’s municipal court that could handle them.

“Just last week I had to continue two trials that we didn’t have an open courtroom for,” he said. “Both sides were ready to go, we just didn’t have a courtroom.”

The trouble finding a courtroom for trials speaks to a bigger issue at the municipal court, officials say. Aurora hasn’t added a courtroom in more than a quarter century, and the crunch on court resources will only get worse as the city continues to grow.

To tackle that time crunch — and avert potentially having to drop a case because court staff couldn’t get it to trial in the 90 days allowed by law — municipal court officials say they have a ready-built but pricey solution: Open another courtroom.

Courtroom No. 5 on the first floor of the municipal court has been there since the courthouse opened decades ago, complete with jury box, gallery, judge’s bench, witness stand and all the equipment found in the rest of the city’s courtrooms.

What it has never had is a staff.

To staff the courtroom, and have it operating fully with the other seven at the courthouse, Day said the city would need to spend about $500,000 a year. That would cover a judge, judge’s assistant, court reporter, prosecutor and administrative staff, he said.

Zelda DeBoyes, administrator for the city’s courts, said Aurora is lucky because the cost is limited to staffing the courtroom. Having a fully-functional room at the courthouse means the city doesn’t need to worry about construction costs that would otherwise add quite a bit to the final tally.

DeBoyes said court staff have asked city council to open Courtroom No. 5 in the past, but for a variety of reasons it never happened. Council once pledged additional funding to operate the room, but the economy tanked shortly thereafter and every department had to make cuts, she said. The courts opted to cut the recently funded and not-yet-open courtroom.

It has stayed closed since.

City Council is set to discuss opening and funding the courtroom at their meeting Dec. 19.

City Councilwoman Barb Cleland, who chairs council’s Public Safety Committee, said that while the budget for next year has already been voted on, she thinks city management can find a way to fund the courtroom.

“I think it is doable,” she said.

If council pledges the money, Day said he is hopeful he can hire another judge and the required staff to have the room operational in February 2017.

Day said one of the fears for court staff is that jam-packed dockets will mean trials don’t happen before the 90-deadline called for by speedy trial rules.

Right now, the courts can take a case to trial in about 55 days, Day said. That’s down from a few months ago when they averaged more than 60 days before trial, but Day said it’s still too long.

The goal, he said, is 45 days. That way if something comes up, there is still a 45-day buffer during which the two sides can prepare for trial before a case has to be dismissed.

According to Aurora police statistics, the city’s police have issued fewer summonses and made fewer arrests this year compared to last year. That has coincided with a dip in the number of case filings at municipal court.

DeBoyes said there will be about 40,000 cases at the court this year compared to 53,000 last year.

But officials see that dip as an anomaly.

When the department puts more officers on the street — as they will when the current academy class graduates close to 40 by the end of May 2016 — DeBoyes said officials expect to see a spike in case filings.

While numbers are down, the city’s courts have long been busier than their counterparts in other cities. Day said many cases that would be prosecuted at the district level in other cities, including car theft, domestic violence and some weapons cases, are instead prosecuted at the municipal level.

In the case of car theft, Aurora mandates a tougher jail sentence at municipal court than car thieves may get at district court.

Day said city officials take pride knowing that the municipal court often handles tougher cases than similar courts generally do.

“A lot of cases that you would see at the district level, we see here,” he said. “Our city leaders want to handle local problems here.”