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Courts preparing for Oly offenders

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Things will be the same yet different in the courts affected by the 2002 Winter Games, officials say.

On one hand, court officials want to handle any Olympic-related offenses as quickly and professionally as possible.

On the other, they don't intend to treat visitors any differently than locals and don't want to violate anybody's rights.

This somewhat contradictory message emerged from a press conference Thursday that included judges, court administrators, police and individuals associated with the Olympics.

Judges in three districts that include seven counties have been clearing the calendars as much as possible to make room for any Olympic-related cases.

David Schwendiman, assistant U.S. attorney with the Utah Olympic Safety Command, said extensive planning for visitors has been done to produce two goals: that they will be safe in Utah at the Games, and "if something goes wrong" and a visitor commits a crime, that person will be treated "fairly, swiftly, professionally and justly."

However, several other people hastened to add that visitors won't be treated better, more leniently or have their cases handled faster than local citizens.

"We haven't set up an express line," said 3rd District Judge Robin Reese, who heads the 3rd District Olympic Subcommittee. "People will be treated the same whether they're from Salt Lake City or from some other place."

Salt Lake City prosecutor Sim Gill said his agency will handle things on a case-by-case basis.

Schwendiman said local courts were given local control over how to handle Olympic cases because they know their operations best. So, in 2nd District, two designated Olympic judges will handle nothing but those cases. In 3rd District, all judges will handle Olympic cases. Most courthouses will keep their regular 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours, but in Summit County, night court could be scheduled if necessary.

This might sound confusing and disorganized to some.

But 3rd District Judge Ronald Nehring, the presiding judge, said he "takes comfort" from the fact that Utah judges are professionals who are expected to exercise their discretion and common sense, and he expects that to continue during the Olympics. Judges also are bound by a range of sentencing they all follow.

"It is wrong to suggest that judges would do strange things they've never done before in their careers because they're facing a Slovakian speedskater," Nehring said. "I don't expect a wholesale abandonment of judgment and common sense."

As an example, if a minor who was charged with public intoxication appeared before him in court, Nehring said he most likely would require that person to take an alcohol class. But if the individual is from another country, Nehring said he probably would impose a different sentence. "I'm not going to prevent someone from going back to Munich to take an alcohol class. That's silly. I'd probably impose a fine and move ahead with life," he said.

However, if individuals plead not guilty and want to exercise the full legal rights they have under the U.S. Constitution, they could leave the country but would be expected back in court. "We're going to respect their rights, but we're not going to do extraordinary things to accelerate things," he said.

An important note for victims of domestic violence: Protective orders in 3rd District Court will be signed at the Murray satellite court, 5022 S. State, because it will be more accessible than the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse.

E-mail: lindat@desnews.com