Is Paying A Prosecutor By The Hour A Conflict Of Interest?

marsy's law

Today over at Watchdog I have a story about a man who was convicted of a DUI in Grand Forks almost 20 years after he was arrested for it. He wasn’t even aware that the matter was unresolved until a routine employment screening found the warrant.

It’s a remarkable story for a lot of reasons, including the fact that the state didn’t pursue their arrest warrant against him despite ample opportunities and the fact that his former lawyer has faced suspensions and fines repeatedly but retains his law license, but there was one part of the story that really stood out to me.

The prosecutor in the case was getting paid by the hour. Which is sort of problematic, don’t you think?

Kristi Pettit Venhuizen, an attorney with the Kalash & Pettit law firm in Grand Forks who represented the city in the case, said she offered Gale a plea deal after Brand contacted her.

“The city offered to amend the charge to the reduced offense of reckless driving prior to the recent trial,” Pettit Venhuizen told Watchdog in a letter sent in response to an inquiry about the case. “Mr. Gale did not accept the plea offer.”

Brand contends it wasn’t much of an offer. “One thing she failed to disclose to you was the ‘reduced offense’ of reckless driving is a B Misdemeanor, which is the same level offense as a first time offense DUI,” he told Watchdog. “She also conditioned that Mr. Gale had to pay $1,000 in fines and fees to close this out. So the offer of pleading to a crime of the same level offense and paying $1,000 because the government didn’t do their job for 20 years was a nonstarter.”

Brand also questioned whether Pettit Venhuizen had financial motivation to avoid settling the case, noting she is paid by the hour for prosecuting the case.

“What’s her incentive to settle the case?” Brand asked. “She gets paid more by going to trial.”

Pettit Venhuizen was paid $80 per hour in the case, and while she argues that she didn’t bill for any more time than a typical case like this takes, I think Brand has a point. Don’t prosecutors getting paid by the hour have a financial incentive to drag things out? And isn’t that a detriment not just to the taxpayers but to justice?

I honestly don’t know how justice was served by taking a case like this to trial. Jason Gale, the defendant, had already paid a $300 fine in 1995 and was apparently misled by his previous attorney, who has had a laundry list of ethical issues in his law practice, into thinking the matter had been handled. It wasn’t like he was on the lam dodging this arrest warrant. Heck, he had a child support case out of Grand Forks county that required him to keep the State of North Dakota apprised of his employment status and residential address.

It was the state’s fault that they didn’t pursue this warrant.

This wasn’t justice, and the fact that the prosecutor has a financial interest in prolonging the proceedings doesn’t help matters.