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Suspension of prosecutor leaves city court scrambling

Attorney may seek dismissal of Townhouse Motel case

"It complicates things terribly, as of this moment I'm not sure who I'm supposed to deal with." That's attorney Doug Garrison's take on the lack of a permanent prosecutor in Sunnyside. Last Thursday the Sunnyside lawyer and his clients, Townhouse Motel owners Fred and Helen Kim, felt the full impact of prosecutor Kathleen Hitchcock's suspension from her post due to DUI charges just a day earlier. The case was set for a jury trial last Thursday in Sunnyside Municipal Court. Without divulging why, Municipal Court Judge Steven Michels told the court and 15 or so jurors Hitchcock was unavailable. He noted she had a conflict in trying the case because of her "employment status." The judge added, "She is disqualified by her employer." Court convened 20 minutes late Thursday waiting for fill-in prosecutor Ken Raber to arrive. The choice of Raber proved unfortunate for Sunnyside, as he sat as a judge on one of the Kims' earlier hearings. That meant he too had a conflict and could not prosecute their case. Raber said he did not initially recall sitting in on the case previously, but then confirmed the conflict. That left Michels to schedule the couple for a status conference in court on Thursday, Aug. 22, at 9 a.m. With the city prosecutor unavailable for the forseeable future, Michels also informed the Kims their 90-day threshold for a speedy trial required by law starts all over again. "The 90 days started yesterday," he said, referring to last Wednesday when the city suspended Hitchcock. "He's not happy, but he understands there's a legal process that goes on," Garrison said of Mr. Kim's response to the predicament. The couple was arraigned last month on charges of maintaining or permitting a nuisance at their motel, the site of 97 police calls over the past three years. "The whole ballgame changed" Garrison says the situation in the Sunnyside court might pose an opportunity for the Kims' case to be dismissed. "I'm still muddling this from a legal standpoint," he said later Thursday. "The city suspended her employment, but does that really disqualify her (Hitchcock) from the case? If we can find a legal way to dismiss I think I would." Further, Garrison says first thing today, Monday, he is filing a notice of objection to the Aug. 22 status conference date. He contends Michels erred in resetting the 90-day clock. "It's very unusual," Garrison said. "She (Hitchcock) is not suspended from the practice of law and I don't know if the city manager (then-interim John Darrington) had the authority to go in and suspend her employment." Though last Thursday's court appearance was brief for the Kims, Garrison contends, "The whole ballgame changed in a span of five or six minutes." The "whole ballgame" has indeed changed for Sunnyside police in the wake of Hitchcock's suspension. Sergeant Ollie Hernandez has served Sunnyside's Police Department for 20 years, and he says arraignments will especially be challenging without a permanent prosecutor on board. "It's difficult because they're coming in blind," Hernandez says of working with pro tem or fill-in prosecutors. He said police officers will have to put in more time on their shifts to work with Sunnyside's stable of prosecutors on municipal court arraignments. "We have to have time to get them up to speed as to what the cases are about." Looking for answers "If we don't have a prosecutor, trials will come to a stop," Michels said moments after the Kims' brief court appearance. He says the city will likely turn to a pool of four or five attorneys for prosecution services during the interim. "Our municipality is not known for speed when it comes to personnel decisions," added Michels, the municipal court's judge since it began in 1986. Municipal Court administrator Debbie Mendoza says it will ultimately be up to Sunnyside city hall - which today welcomed new city manager Donald Day - to keep things moving forward on the prosecutor front. "We'll rely on the city administration to come forward with prosecutors for us," she said.

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