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Courts get ready for Olympics cases

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While the 2002 Winter Games are expected to be glitter and glory, fun and games, traffic and TRAX, there also is another element that will undoubtedly surface.


With suspects and victims.

Not to mention the police to investigate and arrest, prosecutors to file charges, defense attorneys to help defendants, bailiffs to secure courtrooms, clerks to keep records and judges to preside over everything.

The Olympics are expected to affect seven counties ? Salt Lake, Davis, Utah, Summit, Wasatch, Morgan and Weber ? and the courts in those communities have been gearing up to handle any difficulties.

The Utah Olympic Public Safety Command has been at work since 1998 to prepare for anything ranging from terrorist attacks to petty crime, according to David Schwendiman, an assistant U.S. attorney who is legal advisor to the command.

Schwendiman is part of a 3rd District Olympic working group that includes judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors and others, which has prepared a master plan for court matters.

A key element is permitting local control of courts, "because they know their business better than anyone," Schwendiman said.

In all areas, things are being streamlined as much as possible in case Olympic-related events need lots of court time and staff attention, and also to ensure that local residents get justice for their legal situations.

In 3rd District Court, for example, the calendars are being trimmed as much as possible, but people charged with crimes who are jailed still will get their day in court. "It's not fair to people to keep them in jail," Schwendiman said.

Some other changes in 3rd District Court:

To cut caseloads temporarily, some judges have been asked not to handle civil cases unless necessary. This applies only to courts in Salt Lake, West Valley and Silver Summit court in Summit County. The judges in Sandy, Murray, Tooele and Coalville have not been asked to reduce their civil caseloads.

Protective orders still will be issued but will be signed at the Murray court because it will be more accessible than the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City.

The regular hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. will be maintained in 3rd District courts, unlike federal court, which will have shortened hours.

An on-call roster of judges, attorneys and other staffers has been prepared in case there are mass arrests.

There will be no public parking at the Matheson Courthouse.

Despite these changes, the courts in large part will proceed as usual.

"People who are in jail now and have cases pending or who are arrested before the Olympics will have their cases processed ordinarily," said 3rd District Judge Robin Reese, who heads the 3rd District Olympic Subcommittee.

If jury trials are necessary, they might have to be held elsewhere, but few expect jury trials to be scheduled in February for practical reasons. Potential jurors might be distracted by traffic woes and all the crowds, they might have tickets to Olympic events and defense attorneys might object, stating that inattentive jurors couldn't render a fair decision.

"We don't want to violate anyone's rights," Reese said.

To head off trouble, there will be educational efforts to help international visitors understand what's legal here and what is not. For example, someone accustomed to strolling public sidewalks with a stein of beer in hand at an Oktoberfest might be baffled by Utah's liquor laws.

To that end, there have been such things as training ? and ongoing advice available from the Olympic Coordination Center ? for local police. This is intended to help them handle such things as an infraction involving someone with diplomatic immunity or whose embassy must be notified of any legal tangles. Interpreters also will be made available to assist police.

"We're educating our law enforcement people to be as nonconfrontational and helpful as can be," Schwendiman said. "We're urging that people be warned rather than arrested."

But violent and serious crimes ? committed by anyone ? will not be tolerated.

"People committing serious offenses will face the full measure of the law," Reese said.

"We intend to be even-handed," Reese said. "We wouldn't treat Olympic visitors better than anyone else. Our goal is to be as fair and professional as possible and to ensure the rights of due process for everybody."

Paula Carr, clerk of the court for Weber County, said changes also are under way in 2nd District Court to cope with any Olympic challenges.

"We've been cutting back calendars, primarily not scheduling any jury trials during that period," Carr said. "Jurors might have tickets to events, and we don't want to inconvenience them. And security will be pretty thin. We want to free up those folks ? the sheriff's deputies ? as much as possible.

"Anything that comes in that is Olympic-designated we plan to handle on an expedited basis," she said.

The problem, Carr said, is that no one really knows what to expect, despite advice from other Olympic host cities. "Will we get hundreds of arrests or a smaller amount?"

An article by Schwendiman published in the November issue of Utah Bar Journal indicates that reported crime likely will drop during the Olympics and that the likelihood of a "catastrophic criminal event" is "extremely remote."

Still, some court employees have questions.

For example, will throngs of animal rights protestors show up at the rodeo that will be held in Davis County? Will everything be peaceful, or will there be civil disobedience or even violence?

"We have only anecdotal information about what to expect from other hosting areas that hosted the Olympics before," Carr said.

E-MAIL: lindat@desnews.com