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Watertown police, sheriff’s department trying to solve inmate snafu

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WATERTOWN — City officials are scrambling after finding out they no longer will be able to hold suspects at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building before they are arraigned.

Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns told city officials last week that to comply with state law, the county jail will refuse to admit suspects arrested by the Watertown Police Department who have not yet been brought before a judge for arraignment on the charges. The change will take place April 16, he said.

Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau said Tuesday that the sheriff’s department was notified about the problem by the state Commission of Correction.

“A prearraigned individual is still a suspect that has been arrested. They have to be held in a holding cell,” Mr. Trudeau said. “It’s a whole different classification, and there are different rules and regulations between a holding cell and a county correctional facility.”

When construction began on the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building in the late 1980s, a holding area with three rooms was included. Both the county and the city use that holding area to house prearraigned individuals.

However, city police generally are given precedence in their use of the area because, as a municipal law enforcement agency, they can set police bail, according to Mr. Trudeau.

Sheriff’s deputies do not have that ability. They must either find a judge to arraign a suspect or release the suspect with an appearance ticket, depending on the crime of which they are accused, Mr. Trudeau said.

A legal regulation apparently prohibits the sheriff’s department from holding the city’s prearraigned suspects, according to Jefferson County Attorney David J. Paulsen.

Exceptions to the regulation are sometimes made on a case-by-case basis, Mr. Paulsen told Jefferson County legislators at a board meeting Tuesday night.

Mr. Trudeau told legislators that Commission of Correction officials notified Mr. Burns that the sheriff’s department was violating the regulation in January.

“We’re taken aback just as much as anybody else,” Mr. Trudeau said.

While the jail at the PSB continues to suffer from problems caused by overbooking, Mr. Trudeau said that the two issues are separate and distinct.

Mr. Trudeau said the sheriff’s department was working with the city to resolve the issue.

“I’m not 100 percent sure why it all of a sudden came to light,” Mr. Trudeau said. “This is not coming from the sheriff’s department. This is a directive from the Commission of Correction.”

City officials were notified Monday about the issue via a letter from Sheriff Burns.

City Manager Sharon A. Addison instructed City Attorney Robert J. Slye to work with Mr. Paulsen to find out more about the issue. Ms. Addison said Tuesday she was waiting to hear from Mr. Slye to see what was learned about it.

“I don’t know the impact at this time,” she said. “I don’t have anything else at this point.”

In a March 28 letter to Watertown Police Chief Gary R. Comins, Sheriff Burns wrote: “After April 15th, the Jefferson County Correctional Facility will refuse admittance of any Watertown Police Department’s prisoners that have not been arraigned as per law.”

Janine Kava, spokeswoman for the Commission of Correction, said Tuesday a longtime state correction law forbids prearraigned inmates from being held in the same place as arraigned inmates.

To get that law amended in Jefferson County, the sheriff’s department would be required to make a request allowing prearraigned inmates to be housed at the county jail until they are arraigned. It would take a statutory authority by the state Legislature to approve the request, Ms. Kava said.

To date, 14 counties have received permission from the state to house prearraigned inmates in their jails.

The sheriff’s and Watertown City Police departments have shared the Public Safety Building since it was built in 1992. Before that, people arrested by city police were kept at the city police station at City Hall and then taken upstairs to City Court for their arraignments.

In 1992, while construction was being completed at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building and there was no city lockup available, Watertown police had to rouse Watertown and Pamelia justices, sometimes in the dead of night, to arraign people who were being held on suspicion of committing crimes.

A copy of the letter from Mr. Burns to the city of Watertown can be viewed here: http://wdt.me/XAnh7b

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department letter
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