By Tim Eberly
A miniature image of Carol Chagnon pops into a window on her computer screen. Directly above Chagnon's image, in a larger square, is a chubby-cheeked, dark-haired man in an orange uniform worn by those detained in the Hill County Detention Center.
The real Judge Chagnon, Hill County's justice of the peace, has swiveled her chair away from her desk and is peering intently at the monitor, where the tiny version of herself mimics her every move.
A pocket-sized camera atop her computer and a microphone next to her desk make it all happen: video arraignments, the judicial equivalent of pizza delivery.
"It's really quite unique how they set this up," Chagnon said of the state-of-the-art equipment. "You feel like Judge Judy (but) I don't think I'm quite that sarcastic."
Starting at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Chagnon arraigned three men two on disorderly conduct charges and one for failure to pay fines resulting from a previous conviction in a hour. Because inmates' initial "court appearances" can be done via video equipment, Chagnon wastes no time commuting to the detention center, or deputies exhaust no manpower or gasoline transporting prisoners to the Hill County Courthouse.
"It's a security issue," said Undersheriff Don Brostrom, who helped Havre Police Chief Kevin Olson quarterback the video arraignment project. "You don't have to take somebody from the detention center to the courthouse. You're taking them from their pod into the (detention center) courtroom."
At 1:58 a.m. Monday, sheriff's deputies arrested 25-year-old Donald Stump in the lobby of the Super 8 Motel on the charge of disorderly conduct after he threw up and passed out in the motel's hallway. Sitting in a chair before a camera at the detention center's courtroom on Tuesday, Stump pleaded guilty to the offense.
Though pieces of dialogue during the first arraignment were fuzzy, it didn't affect Stump's arraignment. The Box Elder resident kept his answers concise, usually to one word. Chagnon asked Stump what brought him to the motel and what prompted his behavior. In the end, Chagnon sentenced the 25-year-old man to 10 days in jail, with all but three of them suspended. He had already spent two days in jail, so he will be released today.
Chagnon sat in her chair waiting for the next man, Gary Berger, to plead his case to her image on the computer screen.
"It's much more convienant rather than having to take the extra time to run up there every day," she said. "You like to see the prisoners personally but this works. It's better than running up there. You can talk to them and they talk right back to me."
When the new detention center opened in September 1999, Chagnon and the city court judge, Joyce Perszyk, drove there from the courthouse or city court to conduct arraignments. A miscommunication arose between the Hill County Sheriff's Office and Chagnon, who thought the inmates should be transported to her courtroom.
In late May, Chagnon sent a letter to Sheriff Tim Solomon, saying she would no longer commute to the courthouse for court appearances.
Brostrom intensified his goal of fitting Hill County with a video arraignment system. He had already obesrved the workings of video arraignments in Cascade County while the sheriff's office was preparing to move from the Hill County Courthouse to the new detention center in May 1999.
"I find it's a very close second to sitting in the room with them," said Samuel Harris, Cascade County's justice of the peace. "I've been very impressed with it. Of course, it costs a little money to set up. But I think we've already made up for it in transportation and manpower costs alone."
Neighboring counties, such as Libery and Blaine counties, do not have video arraignments.
Equipment for the project was purchased in September 1999 with the help of a federal grant shared by the Havre Police Department and the Sheriff's Office. Including installation fees, Brostrom estimated the total cost to implement the video arraignment system at $7,500. Perszyk's office is outfitted for video arraignments as well, but a faulty printer has prevented her from obtaining prisoners' pleas through her computer.
"I'm anxious to do it," Perszyk said. "It's not going to be any different from how we did it in the past. You just have to turn (the computer) on."
A certain number of glitches were anticipated with the installation of the new system. Chagnon has been performing video arraignments since early September, and Brostrom and Olson have overcome problems with cables, network cards and missing files. It appears as though the worst is behind them.
"I think we've had enough problems that we've been able to fix it," Brostrom said. "It's getting to that point where you know what all the problems are."
An unopened fax machine is in a box next to Chagnon's door. Courtesy of the county budget, the fax will enable Chagnon to send essential paperwork to the detention center immediately after her video court sessions.
"Before, I had to run across the hall and use the county attorney's fax machine," Chagnon said.