Darby officials say that a 2011 move by the Montana Legislature empowering small-town courts to become "courts of record" is helping them keep more revenue generated from misdemeanor offenses and easing congestion in the criminal justice system.
"We had been working on it for several years," says Darby Clerk and Treasurer Nancy McKinney. "It took some time to get people to understand, to hear us."
Prior to the 2011 legislative change, people found guilty of misdemeanor crimes in Darby City Court and those of other communities with fewer than 4,000 inhabitants could automatically appeal misdemeanor guilty verdicts, because those small-town courts weren't considered courts of record.
It was frustrating for Darby officials and for law enforcement in the community with a population of 720. Defendants accused of crimes including misdemeanor partner family member assault and driving under the influence often were tried once in the Darby court and again in district court. McKinney says defendants were initiating appeals "just because they didn't like the verdict."
Darby paid costs associated with prosecuting in both courts. However, if the district court delivered a guilty verdict, it collected the fines and penalties. "It became quite expensive for us in that way," McKinney says.
Darby's new on-the-record status means that the only way for a defendant to appeal a guilty verdict is if there's a district court finding that the original trial was legally or procedurally flawed.
Since the change went into effect, with a month left in the 2012 fiscal year, Darby's collected $34,461 in fines. That's up from last year's $29,543 and $32,754 in 2010.
During the past several years, Darby has gotten increasingly tough on crime. In 2004, officials there installed several surveillance cameras along the city's historic Main Street. And in 2010, Darby became the first city in the state to create a breathalyzer refusal ordinance. People who refuse a law enforcement officer's request for a breathalyzer test now must pay a $500 fine.
Darby Police Chief Larry Rose says the efforts are simply to keep locals safe. "We're a little town, we can do as much as a big town," Rose says. "We just have to be proactive about doing things."