Berrien County appoints Scott R. Sanford Chief Public Defender

Published 6:00 am Friday, March 10, 2023

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ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County has a new Chief Public Defender, but the decision was questioned by three people attending Thursday’s Berrien County Board of Commissioners meeting. 

Longtime area attorney and current Berrien County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanford was unanimously picked to be the new Chief Public Defender by county commissioners. Sanford should be familiar to south county residents, he has been overseeing the public defender office at the Niles courthouse for several years. 

Sanford spoke briefly to commissioners before the vote. “Thank you for placing your trust in me,” he said. “I will do the best I can do.” 

Niles Township resident Rick Briand spoke out against Sanford’s appointment in public comments. Briand ran unsuccessfully for Berrien County Sheriff in 2020 in the Republican primary and announced Thursday that he plans to run again in 2024. 

“I sat in on a case with Mr. Sanford where he had urged his client to plead guilty to fleeing and eluding police,” Briand told commissioners. “When the defendant told Judge Pasula what happened, the judge said she couldn’t accept his plea. He said he was a passenger in a car where the driver took off and he had slipped and fallen when police told him to get out of the car.” 

“If you’re putting him in charge of public defenders, I would think again,” Briand said. “I wouldn’t put him in charge of the public defenders. He’s par for the course, but that’s not what they’re supposed to do. They should be providing access to justice in the courts, not just running people through the courts.” 

Two others agreed with Briand. Teresa Briand of Niles said the county should be looking into other, better candidates. Adolph Peltzer of Hagar Township asked why it was all so cut and dry with no information provided to the public before the vote. 

Commissioners didn’t respond to the residents’ concerns but did say they had discussed the appointment in their committee meetings.  

The appointment resolution approved by the board noted that the position had become vacant Dec. 9, 2022 and that interviews had been conducted to fill the vacancy. The resolution noted that Sanford was the unanimous choice of the interview committee. He officially starts March 12 and his annual salary will be $115,979. 

The chief public defender position became open when then Chief Public Defender Paul Jancha resigned after being elected a trial court judge in November. Jancha was the third person in that position after the county board created the position in 2016.  

The office is staffed by a 25-member team of public defenders as well as support personnel including investigators and social workers. Chief Assistant Public Defender Kaitlin Locke had been named the Interim Chief Public Defender in December and had applied for the permanent post. 

Sanford received his undergraduate degree in history and political science from the University of Michigan in 1987 and his Juris Doctor degree from the Dickinson School of Law at Penn State University in 1990. A native of Flint, he began his legal career in 1990 and was in private practice in the St. Joseph area until joining the Public Defender office in 2016. 

“We are so pleased Scott has agreed to step into this leadership role with our Public Defender Office,” County Administrator Brian Dissette said in a press release. “He has extensive experience in both civil and criminal proceedings and a strong commitment to ensuring everyone who comes through our doors is treated fairly.” 

County commissioners also acted on another legal matter at their Thursday meeting. They approved hiring the Dickinson Wright PLLC law firm to assist Corporate Counsel Thaddeus Hackworth in a lawsuit brought by Lakeshore School District residents against County Clerk Sharon Tyler. 

Hackworth told commissioners Thursday that he had handled the lawsuit at the Circuit Court level here in Berrien County but needs help in filing the county’s responses and briefs now that it is before the Michigan Court of Appeals. 

The case stems from Tyler’s rejection of recall petitions against two Lakeshore School Board members. Tyler found that there were not enough valid signatures to proceed with a recall election last November. Residents filed a lawsuit which was dismissed by now retired Berrien County Trial Judge Dennis Wiley. They are now appealing that decision to the Court of Appeals.