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Reality TV star Christopher Soules, right, talks with his defense attorney Robert Montgomery at a hearing to waive his right to a speedy trial at the Black Hawk County Courthouse Monday in Waterloo.

Proposed state judicial cuts could impact North Iowa courthouses, court systems

Iowa may have to close more than 30 courthouses – possibly several in North Iowa – due to budget cuts, state judicial officials said. 

Last year, Iowa's judicial system was tasked with then-Gov. Terry Branstad's request to cut $3 million from its budget. Lawmakers said the reductions were the result of a decrease in revenue. 

The reductions caused an unpaid furlough day for all staff except judges and magistrates, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady said in 2017.

Cady also warned at the time status-quo funding would be devastating to a system with more than a 100 vacant positions, due to a hiring freeze. He also noted more than half of Iowa's 99 counties share clerk duties. 

Budget proposals this year call for much of the same. 

Gov. Kim Reynolds has suggested a $1.6 million reduction to the judicial branch. Senate Republicans want the body to trim $4.8 million. House Republicans are still finalizing their budget numbers.

If the Senate Republicans' plan is adopted, State Court Administrator Todd Nuccio said in a Jan. 25 news release the state may have to close more than 30 courthouses across eight judicial districts. 

Since 96 percent of the branch's budget is personnel, Nuccio said its has "no other choice than to close courthouses and eliminate personnel branch-wide."

Closures, which would be indefinite, would be determined by caseload volume in each county, according to Nuccio, which would be shifted to other county courthouses within that judicial district.  

"Providing equal access to justice for all Iowans is a fundamental principle of the Judicial Branch," Nuccio said in a statement. "We will endeavor to fulfill our commitment to this principle subject to the resource limitations placed upon us."

Judicial news release

These are all preliminary estimates, and multiple local county attorneys emphasized Monday they're unsure what cuts might actually occur, and how they would impact their respective courthouses.

Winnebago County Attorney Adam Sauer said he doesn't expect his courthouse to close. He believes more of an impact will be on the clerk of court's office in the courthouse, but doesn't know what that might look like.

"Everything at this time is just talk," Sauer said. "I honestly haven’t given it a lot of thought as to what could happen, because we don’t know what is going to happen."

Other county officials, however, acknowledge the impact such cuts could have. One of them is Worth County Attorney Jeff Greve, who serves a population of just under 7,600.

Greve said e-filing would help curtail some consequences of possible cuts. But he also thinks people who use the courthouse to file important paperwork — no-contact orders, actions for mental or substance abuse, or paying fines and small claims — would be impacted. 

"The impact on the general public is going to be felt more greatly than what we feel," he said.

There's also the chance some area courthouses could close completely. The Mitchell County Board of Supervisors discussed this possibility last month, and how its courthouse, which opened in October 2015, might operate.

Mitchell County Attorney Mark Walk could not be reached for comment via two phone calls or email Monday.

Mitchell County Supervisor Stan Walk in a letter to the editor published Feb. 4 said he thought his county's court system could be impacted, causing a hardship for residents and possibly a bigger workload for other counties. 


A district courtroom close to completion when the new Mitchell County Courthouse opened in August 2015. 

Walk pointed out in his letter that "closing courthouses does not increase the need for workers to process clerk of court items."

"When one considers everything inclusive, the increased costs to local government and the public, there is no savings, but there are substantial additional expenses," Walk wrote. 

Franklin County Attorney Brent Symens said that given his county's population — just under 10,200 — his courthouse is another possibility.

"It's just one of those small rural counties that has to be considered," Symens said. 

Symens said he's uncertain of what cutbacks would do logistically, and is waiting to see how much money is cut and how it will be allocated.

He added, however, that the chance that trials might not be held in his county would cause logisitcal problems.

"Presumably, if they do not have the judges traveling to the courthouses they close, you'd have to take all the cases to another county," Symens said. "And it would just be the difficulties of having all of those hearings in another county instead of Franklin."

Both he and Greve noted the added travel costs for defendants, sheriff's offices and jurors. Greve added that Cerro Gordo County or others would have to handle more cases, and it wouldn't be an easy fix.

"If they close the courthouse completely, then, yeah, it would be a nightmare logistically," he said of Worth County. "Cerro Gordo is currently very busy and doesn’t have excess courtroom space."

Cerro Gordo County Attorney Carlyle Dalen could not be reached for comment via phone or email Monday.

Still, multiple Republicans feel the cuts will not be as harsh as what the state's judicial office has projected. That includes Speaker of the House Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake. 

"I doubt that they’re going to need to close 30 courthouses," Upmeyer said. "I sure hope not, because that would seem like not trying very hard."

But for rural counties, the impact may still be considerable, according to Greve.

"The biggest concern I have is the citizens of Worth County who can’t come to Northwood to interact with the court system, and instead are going to have to travel further," he said.


Iowa bill that reduces marijuana penalties faces uncertain future

A proposal in the Iowa Legislature to lessen penalties for people who possess small amounts of marijuana for the first time would save the state money and reduce the disproportionate number of African-Americans in its criminal justice system, yet its chances of advancing this session are unclear.

The bill would make first offense possession of marijuana that's 5 grams or less a simple misdemeanor instead of a serious misdemeanor, reducing jail time and court fees for those convicted of the charge.

"This would be a step in the right direction in addressing one of the very big racial disparity problems in Iowa," said Daniel Zeno with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

A 2013 report from the national ACLU shows a black person in Iowa is eight times more likely to be charged with marijuana possession than a white person. That's even though white people uses marijuana at about the same rate as black people. The report, based on federal data, ranks Iowa the worst among all states.

Half of the 3,399 cases of marijuana possession convictions in Iowa during the budget year that ended in 2016 involved 5 grams or less, according to data from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. That's a little less one-quarter ounce of marijuana. In the same period, 18 percent of people convicted for first offense marijuana possession were African Americans. Yet African Americans make up just 3.5 percent of the state's population.

The proposal has been debated several times over the years but it hasn't reached both chambers for a vote. The Iowa Peace Officers Association and the Iowa State Police Association registered against the bill. The Governor's Office of Drug Control Policy is registered undecided.

The lack of legislative movement comes amid a shift in the national conversation over marijuana use. San Francisco highlighted that point recently when officials there announced they'll toss or reduce thousands of criminal convictions for marijuana dating back decades.

San Francisco's move came after California legalized recreational use of marijuana with a 2016 ballot initiative. Iowa has not taken such action and smoking marijuana remains prohibited in the state.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, a Republican from Allerton, signed off on the marijuana possession bill during a subcommittee vote last month. She said then the measure isn't aimed at advocating marijuana use.

"This is not about us legalizing marijuana at all. It is not," she said. "It is about the fact that people make errors and addiction happens, and the fact that we would reduce this charge is more about allowing for that second chance and that rehabilitation."

Still, state lawmakers have eased restrictions on medical marijuana in the form of oil, and the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill last year to manufacture and distribute the oil. Former Gov. Terry Branstad signed it into law.

Nine states and the District of Columbia have approved recreational marijuana use. Separately, 29 states, Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico allow public medical marijuana and cannabis programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

It's unclear how these policies will be impacted by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decision recently to rescind an Obama-era policy on non-interference with legal state marijuana operations.

At the Iowa statehouse, the Senate judiciary committee advanced the marijuana possession measure last week. While that means it's eligible for a floor vote, there's no indication it's a priority. The same committee passed the bill last session without further action.

Sen. Brad Zaun, an Urbandale Republican who chairs the Senate judiciary committee and drafted the bill, said he doesn't support recreational marijuana and just wants to make sure small drug use doesn't ruin school and career opportunities.

"It's become somewhat of an epidemic with younger people and adults who make poor decisions," he said.

An analysis by LSA on the bill notes it would result in fewer people in prison, community-based corrections facilities and jail. The full estimate of cost savings is incomplete, but Iowa and local governments would see reductions to their daily expenses of housing individuals caught with small amounts of pot.

That could alleviate Iowa's constrained budget, which has translated to reductions in Iowa's corrections and judicial budgets.

Jason Karimi is a Republican activist in Iowa who supports decriminalizing marijuana. He said the legislation is a first step but he hopes the discussion over marijuana in the future removes stigma around its use.

"I would like it to be based on drug policy science and research instead of emotional fear," he said.

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Mason City mall owner pledges to pay $230K taxes, assessments

MASON CITY | The owner of Southbridge Mall said Monday he intends to pay the more than $230,000 in back property taxes and assessments he owes and will be making a payment next week.

Mike Kohan of Kohan Investments, Great Neck, New York, doing business as Southbridge Mall Realty Holdings LLC, owes $216,690 in property taxes dating back to when he purchased the mall for $1.5 million in September 2016.

In addition, his company owes an extra $14,552 for its part in the 2011 Federal Avenue Streetscape assessment. That assessment is spread over a 10-year installment with payments due each September.

Kohan said he is excited about the plans for the mall, including an ice arena/multipurpose center that is part of the River City Renaissance project.

"There are a lot of pieces to that. I promise to do my part," he said.

He said he will be in contact with the treasurer's office within the next week to discuss the back taxes. 

In October 2017, Kohan paid $28,190 on two tax sale properties but has not made any other payments.

The property taxes figure into the River City Renaissance project because they are to be used to pay part of the city's costs in the mall-related part of the overall project.

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Officials: Forest City man used Bitcoin, Ohio college students to funnel drugs

ATHENS COUNTY, Ohio | A Forest City man has been charged in Ohio for allegedly trafficking narcotics through two college students and conducting drug deals via Bitcoin. 

Anthony Scott Boeckholt, 42, was charged with felony engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity related to drug activity occurring Jan. 1, 2016, through Jan. 23, 2018.  

Boeckholt was arrested Jan. 29 at his residence in Forest City. He is being held in Winnebago County Jail awaiting extradition to Athens County.

The Athens County Prosecutor's Office in Ohio worked with the Fairfield-Hocking-Athens Major Crimes Unit and authorities in Iowa, including the Forest City Police Department. Athens County executed multiple search warrants for suspected Iowa drug dealer. 

Boeckholt allegedly sent many large shipments of narcotics and other drugs to two college students in Athens, who then sold the drugs to buyers in Athens County, the prosecutor's office said in a news release. 

“Ohio is in the middle of an opiate crisis, and this suspect in Iowa was using college kids to traffic thousands of dollars in narcotics,” Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn said in a statement.

The investigation leading to the searches in Iowa began when two college students in Athens were arrested for drug trafficking and questioned with attorneys’ present, according to the release. 

During questioning, investigators learned of the students' use of the dark web -- a part of the internet not indexed by search engines and often used to hide illegal activity -- and how they used the cryptocurrency Bitcoin to conduct transactions.

Investigators pursued communications between the college students and Boeckholt, which they said eventually lead to evidence for multiple search warrants and Boeckholt's arrest in Iowa.

“The secretive nature of the dark web and cryptocurrency allows huge drug deals to be made without a trace," Blackburn said. "This means that anything purchased on the dark web may not be what it appears, leading to fentanyl-laced narcotics and other more severe substances."

Blackburn said drugs purchased on the dark web tied to this investigation led at least two Ohio University students to overdoses in 2017. 

"The crisis is real and we must remain vigilant to the changing ways of drug dealers," Blackburn said. "Let this be a message that we will go wherever we need to find drug dealers and put them behind bars."

The Forest City Police Department, Iowa State Patrol, Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Postal Inspectors, Iowa Department of Transportation, Winnebago County Prosecutor’s Office, U.S. Marshalls, Athens County Sheriff’s Office and the Athens Major Crimes Unit all assisted in the investigation.

More charges are expected against additional individuals in both Ohio and Iowa, as the case remains under investigation.