High case numbers leave County Attorney’s office taxed

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By Jessie Wagoner

 

High case numbers and the extensive use of electronic discovery have left the McPherson County Attorney’s Office taxed and requesting additional staff. 

County Attorney Greg Benefiel reports his office will have filed more than 380 criminal cases by the end of the year. Those cases are all prosecuted by Benefiel or one of the other three attorney’s in the office. The county attorney’s office also employees victim witness coordinators, an office manager, diversion coordinator and a trial assistant. 

While the office currently maintains a staff of four attorneys, the fourth position is not a permanent position. Earlier in the year, both Amanda Faber and Amanda Voth were out of the office on medical leave, leaving the office with only one available attorney, Benefiel. At that time, the McPherson County Commission allowed Benefiel to hire former county attorney Torrance Parkins to fill the void. Benefiel would like to see the fourth position approved from a temporary position to permanent. 

“Ms. Faber had gone on maternity leave and the same week she had her son, Amanda Voth had a medical emergency that left her out of the office for a period of time,” Benefiel said. “We were in a desperate situation. I was desperate. The commission very graciously allowed us to add the fourth attorney at that time.” 

The fourth attorney has been a help, providing coverage while the others were out of the office and helping to keep cases moving forward. With the addition of a fourth attorney, the county attorney’s office has been able to prosecute more cases. 

“It is my belief that retaining that fourth attorney will allow us to continue to file the number of cases law enforcement is sending us, to investigate those cases and prosecute them,” Benefiel said. “Without that fourth attorney, we make shortcuts and sometimes decline a case because it may take too much follow up work or other reasons. When we have the staff to do it right, there are cases that can be prosecuted.” 

While the office continues to see an increase in the number of criminal cases being filed, they have also seen a change in amount of electronic discovery involved in each case. In years past, the county attorney’s office would receive most discovery in a paper format. Law enforcement would submit written reports, photographs and other information. Now, almost every case has extensive electronic discovery for the attorney’s to view prior to trial. Electronic discovery includes video footage from police car dash cams, body camera footage, cell phone records and videos from civilians. It can take hours for the attorneys to view all of the electronic discovery. 

“We had a case last week that was supposed to go to trial on Wednesday but ended up in a plea on Tuesday. Subpoenas had already gone out, trial prep was in full mode,” Benefiel said. “I don’t know how many hours and hours of video I watched and reviewed in that case. We even had civilian videos that had been submitted to law enforcement.” 

That particular case was a property crime. However, it involved four different law enforcement agencies and civilian footage to review. Each video must be reviewed prior to trial so attorneys can determine how best to proceed with the case. It is incredibly unlikely electronic discovery will decrease in the future. In fact, with more businesses and residences using video surveillance, the amount of electronic discovery will likely increase in the future. 

In addition to retaining the fourth attorney, Benefiel is also requesting the McPherson County Commission approve the hiring of an additional trial assistant. He will meet with the county commission on Jan. 10.