A 54 percent increase in filings at Sahuarita Municipal Court has clerks coming in early and working the occasional Saturday just to keep their heads above water, Judge Maria Avilez said.
While the number of cases overall jumped from 2,110 to 3,248 from FY17-18 to FY18-19, the most significant increases were seen in the number of driving under the influence cases and town ordinance cases, which include parking citations, animal violations and speeding violations. The number of DUI cases jumped from 20 to 76. The number of local ordinance cases increased from 260 to 591.
Her clerks are falling behind because even though the town's population and the Sahuarita Police Department are growing, she hasn't been able to replace a clerk's position she lost a couple of years ago during the recession, Avilez said.
Her clerks can't keep up when it comes to entering the various types of citations into the court system, she said. As a result, the court is experiencing something of a domino affect.
If court administrator Rose Mendoza isn't helping out with data entry, she's filling in as a clerk in the courtroom, which means she's not able to keep up with her own duties, the judge said.
"And that takes me away from doing the job I'm supposed to be doing which is issuing warrants, being in court and on the bench," Avilez said. "I'm now doing some of the clerks' work, too. I'm doing all of the delinquency notices for payments. I'm preparing all of the orders to show cause that used to be prepared by the clerks ... Rose and I are both answering phones at the front when we need to and I've even made some calls from my chambers."
It's not just a matter of falling behind in the creation of electronic and physical files, Mendoza said. They're struggling to maintain the files themselves. Every time a defendant comes into court to pay a fine or appears before the judge, a clerk has to pull the file and update both versions.
Many of the files can't wait to be updated either because it could result in a default judgement being filed against a defendant if the files erroneously indicate they are delinquent in making a payment or attending a class, she said.
There may be more people driving on suspended licenses nowadays, too, Avilez said.
When someone doesn't show up to be arraigned in a civil traffic case, the Arizona Supreme Court's system is set up to automatically enter a default judgment the next day, which then results in a suspended driver's license. Although the ticket says driver's licenses will be suspended, last year Avilez convinced the Administrative Office of the Courts to hold off on issuing the default judgements in Sahuarita cases for 14 days so clerks could have the opportunity to send out letters and get the defendants into court.
The court is now having a hard time getting those letters out within that 14-day time period, Avilez said.
Because of the increase in case filings, Avilez and Mendoza said residents are dealing with standing-room-only crowds on Wednesdays. Wednesdays are when Avilez arraigns civil traffic defendants, conducts civil traffic trials, holds evidentiary hearings, and hears contested orders of protection and injunctions against harassment cases.
With so many civil traffic arraignments, all of her other cases are being pushed back throughout the day. She can't reschedule them to other days because those days are packed, too.
"We used to use our Fridays to catch up on our files for the week, now the clerks and Rose are coming in sometimes at 6 in the morning," Avilez said. "We have mandated some Saturdays because of the back log, too."
Sahuarita Police Chief John Noland attributes the increase in case filings to a better-trained police force. Two years ago, he began scheduling more DUI and radar trainings. Officers are also attending more classes pertaining to the use of speed-measuring laser devices.
"Before we were sending officers to trainings when we could afford to send them two or three at a time, now we're hosting more trainings and we're sending eight, 10 officers, 15 officers at a time," Noland said.
The department has actually been able to host courses because he's hired officers from other agencies who are qualified to teach them, the chief said.
In addition to two motorcycle officers, Noland said the overnight shifts now have two officers whose primary focus is DUI enforcement.
Lastly, Noland said he has lifted some restrictions for the officers.
"I know there were times where prior administrations may have directed officers to stay off of I-19 and portions of Nogales Highway," Noland said. "Our philosophy is our folks drive on those roadways whether they are in Green Valley or on the freeway to get to and from work and visiting friends, etc."
As for the increase in parking citations, Noland said his department has seen an increase in the number of complaints filed by residents. Typically, he said, tickets are only issued after warnings are ignored.
Even when it comes to speeding and other traffic violations, Noland said he tells his officers that unless they believe a warning won't cure the problem, he'd prefer they give drivers a warning instead of a citation.
"I don't think we're too aggressive or assertive. I think our folks are doing a good job," Noland said. "We try to monitor the collisions we have and the areas we get complaints in so we can concentrate our efforts there."