Changes coming to Berrien County Trial Court

ST. JOSEPH – New state laws and the ongoing pandemic are bringing changes to the Berrien County Trial Court, Berrien County Commissioners learned Thursday at their regular weekly meeting.

County Commissioners Don Meeks and Julie Wuerfel reported on the trial court changes as well as an update on the efforts of Berrien County Prosecutor Steve Pierangeli. Pierangeli, Berrien County Chief Trial Judge Mabel Mayfield and Trial Court Administrator Carrie Smietanka-Haney spoke to the Administration Committee earlier Thursday.

Meeks said Pierangeli pledged his office’s support in efforts to stop the violence occurring in the Benton Harbor area this summer. Pierangeli told administration committee members that his office will prosecute any kind of illegal gun violence or activities, Meeks said.

Pierangeli also said he is continuing to work with the community on expungement reforms that went into effect earlier this year after the passage of new state laws. The Michigan Clean Slate legislation expands people’s ability to get convictions off their record. People now can apply to get up to three felonies and unlimited misdemeanors off their record.

Wuerfel noted that the trial court is also putting an emphasis on expungements. She said Smietanka-Haney told committee members that there are a lot of potential expungements in the county and that Trial Judge Gary Bruce will be exclusively in charge of handling them.

She also reported that rising COVID numbers are forcing the trial court to make a few changes. While there is no shutdown on the horizon, Judge Mayfield said new protocols will be put in place next Monday. Jurors will be required to wear masks in the courtroom although masks will be optional in the jury deliberation room.

“Members of the public sitting in the courtroom will be required to be masked or do social distancing,” Wuerfel said.

The county is also moving to put a rent moratorium in place as the transmission and other rates rise.

In other trial court changes, she said that Judges Gary Bruce and Dennis Wiley are stepping back a little with their caseload. Judges Art Cotter and Donna Howard will be stepping in to take on more cases as a result.

Also Thursday, Commissioners approved a resolution adding staff to the Berrien County Public Defender’s Office. The additional staffing has been approved and funded by the state and will include two more attorneys and a social worker. In addition, the office supervisor position will change to an office administrator position.

Thursday’s county board meeting also featured action on the board’s meeting calendar. The board’s meeting on Sept. 2 will be canceled. Commissioners had talked last week about meeting on Sept. 30, which is a fifth Thursday instead, but learned Thursday that the board room would not be available that day.

The county board will be having two extra meetings in September to host budget hearings for the 2022 budget. Those hearings are scheduled for Sept. 13 and 14.

The county board will be going on the road for their first and only night meeting of the year next week. The board will meet at 6 p.m. next Thursday, Aug. 19 at the Chikaming Township Fire Department on Red Arrow Highway. There will not be committee meetings that day and no livestream will be available of the meeting.

Commissioners and County Administrator Brian Dissette said a commissioner tour of Red Arrow Highway before the meeting would not violate the Open Meetings Act. Commissioner Jon Hinkelman said commissioners have always made the promise not to discuss county business when at informational gatherings.

In other reports Thursday:

  • Commissioner Teri Freehling reported on the county planning commission’s efforts to update the county master plan. She said county staff are putting together a survey to go out to local leaders and residents to gather input on both the master plan update and strategic planning.
  • Commissioners praised county efforts this week to clean up damage and restore power in light of the storms that swept through the area earlier this week. Some of the hardest-hit areas were along the Lake Michigan coastline, including the Bridgman area.
  • Commissioners heard comments from two county residents, Mark Anderson and Amy Foster, on the pandemic. Both expressed concerns about what they see as governmental tyranny in imposing pandemic restrictions such as lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates.

“We’re asking you to go to bat for us,” Foster said.

She is part of the Berrien County Parents for School Freedom Facebook group.

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