Magistrate's admitted mistakes could get him fired or get the county sued

Magistrate's admitted mistakes could get him fired or get the county sued

Magistrate's mistakes lead to tangle over termination

July 11th, 2018 by Judy Walton in Breaking News

Updated at 5:01 p.m. on Wednesday, July 11, 2018.

A Hamilton County judicial commissioner will get 30 days and more training to determine whether he is up to the job, county commissioners decided Wednesday.

The vote was a reprieve for magistrate Stuart Brown, whose first month on the job was marked by improperly dismissed warrants, incorrect paperwork and the disappearance of 11 warrants issued by judges, according to his supervisor and others.

Chief Magistrate Lorrie Miller has recommended Brown be fired, saying multiple attempts to train him for the job have failed.

"It gives me no pleasure to make this recommendation," Miller told commissioners at a Security and Corrections Committee meeting Wednesday.

"I'm a problem-solver. I've seen him make the same mistakes over and over despite all the training I've tried to give him. I don't know what else I can do," she said.

Commissioners chose Miller and Brown as magistrates after revamping the program and boosting the pay by around 30 percent earlier this year. They chose Miller as chief magistrate, and both started work June 1. Two other magistrate posts will be filled in October.

As a criminal defense attorney with decades of experience, Brown should know the law, Miller said. Instead, she said, Brown has messed up paperwork, can't deal with procedures and even lost 11 warrants.

General Sessions Judges Lila Statom and Gary Starnes described the errors to commissioners. They said Brown dismissed a warrant issued by a judge on probable cause, which resulted in the release of someone charged with a crime. Brown was counseled for it but did the same thing again, Statom said.

That was a serious error, Statom said. Only the district attorney's office can dismiss a warrant issued on probable cause.

"I thought it might be lack of knowledge of procedure in Judge [Clarence] Shattucks' case, but when it came to my case, I know it had been explained. I do not know why it was done. I just don't know how it could be done."

Starnes said law officers have begun avoiding Brown when they need warrants or papers, turning instead to other magistrates or the judges.

Commissioner Greg Beck asked both judges if they were uneasy to have Brown continue as a magistrate. Statom avoided the question but Starnes didn't.

"If it doesn't get better I'm going to be real uneasy," he said. "I don't want those things to come back and haunt the county."

Apparently intending to point out that errors are a human failing, Beck asked Statom if judges had ever made mistakes.

"Has there ever been a time when a judge released people charged with murder who went out and committed murder again?" Beck asked.

That could happen, Statom said, but the problem for the judge would be if he or she caused the release by issuing incorrect paperwork. People are mostly entitled to bond and judges can't control what happens outside of court, she said.

Beck, who has served on the commission 13 years, said there is a history of problem cases and problem magistrates. The program was set up by legislative act in 1999 under the county commission.

"I know the history of magistrates over there, and some of them have been pretty bad," Beck said. "This situation we have now pales [in comparison] to the situations we had in the past — most of them have been fixable."

Brown spoke in his own defense, acknowledging errors early on but saying his performance improved with more training. He said he would "absolutely" be willing to receive additional instruction.

Commissioners started to vote on a motion to terminate his contract offered by committee chairman Tim Boyd but amended their action on Commissioner Joe Graham's motion to give him more training and re-evaluate after 3o days.

There are potential legal minefields for the county either way: Brown could sue if he's fired, or someone else could sue if Brown's mistakes result in damage, injury or death to a member of the public.

"This is extremely serious: a potential lawsuit by a contract employee vs. criminals walking the street," Boyd said.

"My constituents aren't going to tolerate it. Period. Paragraph," he said.

"Is it your family in danger because warrants were lost? I don't know. Is it a child that needs protection? I don't know."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.