Katie Berwick, 28, clerk of the municipal court, was born in Williston, where she spent the first 10 years of her life before moving to Fargo with her family. She graduated from Minot State University with a degree in business management. In an interview with the Williston Herald, she addressed the city’s caseload and her hopes for a computerized docket. The following excerpt has been edited and condensed.
Q: What does a clerk of the court do?
Katie Berwick: I shuffle paperwork for the court system. I keep track of everyone who has any outstanding conditions, jail time, any fines that are owed. I keep the court system running when we have court days. I hand our paperwork. I get the paperwork from the judge and provide customer service for anyone who has the unfortunate circumstance of being in court.
Q: What are the majority of cases that occur in the city?
We handle all B misdemeanors and below, so it’s going to be DUIs and theft of property under $250. We see a lot of disorderly conduct and theft is really a big one, which is kind of surprising to me. I thought it would be DUIs, but I think people really like to steal. That seems to be a very popular choice of crime.
Q: How many cases actually come to trial?
Many of them will transfer to district court, but they don’t usually get to the point where they have a jury trial. A lot of times they can come to an agreement before costing the county the money for a jury trial. We have anywhere from three to five bench trials in municipal court with the judge, the prosecuting attorney, the officer and any witnesses for the defendant. When I started it was maybe two a week or two every other week, and now we’re a steady three to five every court day. A lot of the bench trials that we see are actually traffic cases.
Q: What is a bench trial vs. a jury trial?
A bench trial stays in municipal court with a judge, the prosecuting attorney, the arresting officer, any witnesses the city may have and any witnesses for the defendant. A jury trial is with the judge, the prosecuting attorney, any witnesses for the defendant, and six of their peers make up the jury.
Q: How many cases are there per day?
I would say on average we see anywhere from 50 to 70 cases, and that’s not to say that everybody will show up. A lot of those are things that are going on in the background — plea agreements with attorneys that still have to be brought through court but they get handled before court. And then there are a lot of people who don’t come. We probably see about 30 people a court day, but there’s 50-70 cases that I’m keeping track of.
Q: Has the number increased?
It’s probably increased 30 to 40 percent from this time last year. In 2011 it increased over 100 percent. Most of this is because the job previously wasn’t a full-time position, so the person also did other accounting tasks. As the city grew, she had less and less time to keep up with court duties. Many cases are increasing because I’m able to go back and see that conditions aren’t completed. And then I can send letters and request people come into court and explain why they haven’t completed them or issue warrants.
Q: What’s it like to be in court?
There is never a dull moment in city court. It’s pretty straightforward, call your case, they come up, plead guilty or not guilty. They go through the facts of the case if they plead guilty and then the sentencing, and then people go about their day. It’s pretty cut and dry. Every so often we have some interesting things that go on.
Q: Is your docket computerized?
We currently keep our docket on a five-subject notebook. Any reschedules or continuing cases: Those are all kept in a planner calendar that we carry back and forth. By the end of the year I’m hoping to have everything in the computer, so people can have a better idea of what’s coming in court. You can search cases after they’ve been completed. We do everything after the fact right now, and I’m hoping to get to the point where we do things real time.
Q: Is there an increase in cases each season?
The winter really keeps the riff-raff out. When it’s 30 below people don’t go out, they stay home. It’s run to the storm and hurry and get home. Lives tend to be a little more boring in the winter. The summer comes and there’s always national news reports about how there are a million jobs in Williston, so people come with no plan, no car and no home. When you don’t have a car, a place to live and a job it’s very easy for people to make poor choices.
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