Race is on for Beltrami County Attorney candidates
BEMIDJI — The highest profile local race in Tuesday’s Primary Election will be voters narrowing three Beltrami County Attorney candidates down to two.
The county attorney’s office has been under the leadership of Tim Faver for 25 years. Faver announced his retirement earlier this year, and attorneys Darrell Carter, Annie Claesson-Huseby and David L. Hanson filed to fill his seat.
The three candidates fielded questions from the public at a forum hosted by Citizens for an Informed Electorate committee at Bemidji City Hall this past Tuesday.
In addition, Carter, Claesson-Huseby and Hanson also responded to additional questions posed by the Pioneer.
Here’s a look at the candidates:
Carter has practiced law for 27 years; 23 in his hometown of Bemidji. Carter’s experience includes a private law practice since 1991, public defense in Minnesota and Arizona and prosecution in Oklahoma. He graduated from Bemidji High School and BSU and studied law at the University of Tulsa College of Law. Carter served in the U.S. Navy from 1975-1979.
Claesson-Huseby has been practicing law since 2001. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, she moved to Bemidji in 2001 and began working in the county attorney’s office in 2004. She is currently the chief assistant Beltrami County Attorney. Claesson-Huseby earned her law degree at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
Hanson’s experience includes owning and operating his own private law practice. He is a former assistant county attorney for Clearwater County. Hanson graduated from Bemidji High School and BSU. He earned his law degree at the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities.
The Pioneer sent each of the candidates the same five questions. Here are their responses, which have been edited for style and length.
Q. What do you see as the greatest obstacle for the county attorney’s office in Beltrami County?
CARTER: Like any government entity, there is always a scarcity of resources, be it funding for additional attorneys and staff and, in particular, the victim witness coordinator. With increased mandates from the Legislature, it’s always difficult for any government agency to keep abreast of the continuing demands. But more resources are always beneficial in order to meet the goals of an organization. But you have to strike a balance. Taxpayers pockets are only so deep.
CLAESSON-HUSEBY: Great leaders understand that there is little difference between obstacles and opportunities. I choose to see obstacles as opportunities, and problems as possibilities. Beltrami County has historically had a high crime rate. However, great police work coupled with vigorous prosecution has lead to a decrease in the crime rate the past six years. Of particular note is the clearance rate, the number of crimes solved. That has increased substantially the past six years, a clearance rate of 46 percent in 2008 to a clearance rate of 74 percent in 2013. This, of course, means more cases are referred to the county attorney’s office for prosecution. The increased clearance rate equated to 100 more felony prosecutions in 2013 than in 2012. The county attorney’s office also experienced an increase in the number of jury trials. I am proud to say that from 2011 to 2013, Beltrami County has tried more jury trials than any other county in the Ninth Judicial District. The pressures placed on staff as a result of almost constant jury trial preparation and presentation is an obstacle we turned into an opportunity. We have looked to BSU and law schools for interns, and we have used interns to help us with legal research, jury preparation and presentation.
HANSON: Beltrami County has the fourth-highest crime rate in the state of Minnesota and we have one of the highest recidivism (repeat offender) rates in the nation. The greatest obstacle for the county attorney’s office is addressing the high crime rate. I plan on working with both law enforcement and the defense bar to create reasonable punishment recommendations that work to lower both the recidivism rate and crime rate.
Q. Court proceedings tend to be time consuming and appearances frequently continued. It can take up to a year sometimes for a person to be sentenced. What would you do to streamline the process?
CARTER: Court proceedings in the criminal area are time consuming. They are time consuming in order for constitutional safeguards to be applied to both the prosecution and the defense. This state has been in existence for just over 150 years and criminal procedure has changed significantly. I don’t think that I want to see the court system any more streamlined than it is. In 27 years of practicing law, I have never had a delay in sentencing anywhere near one year.
CLAESSON-HUSEBY: In today’s society, we all expect instant gratification. I love technology, and I am in awe of the things I can accomplish with just my “smartphone,” but I also recognize that faster is not always better. Especially when we are discussing justice. Everyone who works in the criminal justice system has one goal, justice, and justice takes time. When evidence is obtained, I do not want it to be analyzed in a rush. I want it analyzed by a professional who took their time, followed proper procedure and ensured an accurate result. I recognize it can be frustrating to wait for evidence to be analyzed, but I also recognize the importance of the work, and how it is better to have it done right, not just done. It is important to note the large majority of our cases go through the criminal justice system in a matter of weeks or months. The fact that a complex felony case takes time should not be a point of frustration, it should be a point of recognition. The system recognizes the importance of these cases, takes them seriously, and is willing to exert the time and effort to ensure a just and proper result. If elected Beltrami County Attorney, I will work toward the implementation of electronic discovery. We currently receive reports from law enforcement electronically, and we file our complaints electronically. I would like to see the materials flow from law enforcement, to the county attorney’s office and onto the defense attorneys electronically.
HANSON: I will be coming into the office with a fresh set of eyes and the first thing I will do is to evaluate the current system. Solutions could include anything from shifting caseloads to automating certain processes.
Q. The total number of daily inmates has grown in Beltrami County since the closing of many mental illness hospitals in the 1980s and 1990s. How do you plan to handle placement of people found not competent to stand trial?
CARTER: The placement of people found not competent to stand trial is a responsibility of the judiciary, not the county attorney.
CLAESSON-HUSEBY: It is true that the criminal justice system intersects with the mental health system frequently. The criminal justice system has people in it that suffer from many different types of mental illnesses and/or deficiencies. The fact a person suffers from a mental illness or deficiency does not mean they are incompetent to stand trial. If a person suffers from a mental illness or deficiency, but is competent to stand trial, the criminal justice system can and should serve as a venue to provide services to individuals who need mental health and/or chemical dependency assistance but refuse to get it. The criminal justice system can, and frequently does open up doors to services, and when the person is on probation, it can ensure compliance. It is not unusual for the court to order a diagnostic assessment or a chemical dependency evaluation as a condition of probation. Likewise, it is not unusual for a family member to contact the Beltrami County Attorney’s Office after a loved one’s arrest, and state, I am so glad my loved one was caught... they need services. When the Beltrami County Attorney’s Office gets these calls, we relay the information to the court, ask that assessments be ordered and that the family members serve as collateral contacts. While it is not unusual for the criminal justice system and mental illness system to interact, it is relatively rare for a person to be found incompetent to stand trial. In those circumstances, the Beltrami County Attorney’s Office starts a commitment proceeding, and seeks to commit the person until they gain capacity in accordance with the rules.
HANSON: Minnesota has a Civil Commitment statute (Minn. Statutes Chapter 253B) that provides the procedure for committing an individual to state care. If an accused is found not competent to stand trial then the county attorney’s office, in consultation with law enforcement and the Department of Human Services, will evaluate whether we believe that the individual is a person who is mentally ill and dangerous to the public. If that determination is made in the affirmative then the county attorney’s office will file a civil commitment petition in the District Court seeking appropriate treatment to ensure public safety.
Q. Beginning in 2015, the county attorney’s office will see an increase in cases that qualify for expungement under the second chance law. What will you do to prepare for the increased caseload on your office?
CARTER: In the past, expungements for criminal convictions have been available. However, the law was vague in that judges did not have a particular standard to apply to an expungement. After many years of frustration from the courts, the Legislature finally made some needed changes. The courts and both prosecution and defense attorneys now have a clearer standard for expungements. I don’t anticipate that there will be that large of an increase in requested expungements. In the past, under the current administration, there has been a blanket policy to object to all expungements. I take a much different view. Criminal convictions have a significant impact on a defendant’s ability to secure meaningful employment, which further affects their personal life and directly impacts their children. I strongly believe that there are people who deserve a second opportunity in life and I’m hoping that when I become county attorney, that we will have the opportunity in my office to help give people a second chance.
CLAESSON-HUSEBY: Since 2008, the Beltrami County Attorney’s Office has handled 55 expungement requests. After the new expungement law goes into effect, I anticipate the number of expungement requests will increase. If elected Beltrami County Attorney, I will handle the increased caseload by taking a forward leaning position. I will work to ensure that the caseload is properly assigned in the office before the law takes effect. I will further ensure the attorneys and support staff assigned to handle expungement cases are fully prepared to hit the ground running come Jan. 1. The assigned attorneys and support staff will be ready to open cases and screen petitions to ensure they qualify for expungement under the law. I will work to develop a policy and protocol in order to ensure victims are notified of their rights and their opportunity to be heard regarding the request for an expungement. If the petition qualifies under the law, the assigned attorney will determine “if the interests of the public and public safety outweigh the disadvantages to the petitioner of not sealing the record.” If the interests of the public and public safety do outweigh the disadvantages, the Beltrami County Attorney’s Office will file an objection and ask that the petition be denied.
HANSON: First and foremost is education: I will make sure that all of the attorneys and support staff are up to date on the new law. Second is readiness: making sure we have streamlined review process.
Q. Residents of Beltrami County rely on the county attorney’s office for timely information on criminal cases that affect the community. What is your view on public transparency?
CARTER: It’s important that the public be aware of events in their community that are newsworthy, and the main outlet for information disbursement is through the press and other news media. It is incumbent upon the county attorney’s office to make relevant information known to the public to the extent the county attorney’s office does not compromise the prosecution of a case, impede investigation or compromise an individual’s safety and further secures the confidentiality of victims.
CLAESSON-HUSEBY: When I decided to seek election as the Beltrami County Attorney, I intentionally decided to focus on my first name, Annie. I did that in part because my last name, Claesson-Huseby, is a bit of a nightmare, but in large part because I truly believe that elected officials need to be approachable and accountable. If you have a question about the work of the Beltrami County Attorney’s Office, or a particular case, I want you to ask Annie.
If elected, I will work very hard to ensure that the community is informed of cases as they proceed through the system. The county attorney’s office will continue to respond to public data requests in a timely manner and provide information regarding charges and outcomes as soon as possible. It is important to note, however, that if elected, I will continue to fight to protect identities of domestic and sexual assault victims. Victims should not have to be further traumatized because they decided to report a crime. I feel very strongly that cases should be tried in the courtroom not the media. As such, if elected, my office will provide information regarding procedural matters, but will not comment on the merits of a given case while it is pending.
HANSON: While I was a prosecutor in Clearwater County, I had an open door-policy and I will continue that policy in Beltrami County. I will make the office available to both the public and press for all questions.