By GAIL OBER, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — As the Belknap County Superior Court becomes the third New Hampshire court to join the state's "felonies first" trial system, a fifth attorney has joined the county attorney's office to made that program more efficient.
Attorney Richard "RJ" Meurin joined the office this week and, according to Belknap County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen, he will take over some of her felony case load while she handles felony arraignments, probable cause and bail hearings.
"We'll be dealing with all felony cases at the point of arrest," said Guldbrandsen, who said the attorney position was included in this year's Belknap County budget for this exact purpose.
"Felonies first" is the New Hampshire judicial system's program that is designed to expedite criminal cases through the system. As it stands right now, individuals who are charged with all crimes appear before a circuit court judge who initially determines if the arrest was reasonable and, if so, sets bail.
A defendant has an opportunity to have an probable cause hearing with witnesses within two weeks in circuit court and, if probable cause is found, the case is sent to the county attorney and superior court for possible indictment by a grand jury.
On July 1, all felonies will go directly to superior court at the point of arrest, eliminating the circuit court step. Most misdemeanors will continue to be adjudicated at the circuit court.
"I think (felonies first) this is a good model for early case resolution," said Guldbrandsen. "But it will increase the work load in my office."
In addition to assisting with the case load, the additional attorney will also take over all of the prosecution responsibilities of the Belknap County Sheriff's Department.
Sheriff Craig Wiggin said all circuit court prosecutions from the sheriff's department have traditionally been handled in court by a police prosecutor – or a non-attorney who is trained to some degree in criminal legal prosecution and who is a police officer.
"I'm thrilled we have an attorney prosecutor," Wiggin said. "Our officers do a good job but their time is better spent doing what they do best – policing."
In Belknap County, only police departments in Laconia, Center Harbor, Alton and Barnstead have attorney prosecutors. Laconia has its own attorney while the others contract legal services from private prosecutors.
Wiggin said the procedural requirements for criminal prosecution can be overwhelming at times and said it can also be unfair to pit a non-attorney prosecutor against a defense attorney in a courtroom.
Guldbrandsen said that adding the fifth attorney to her staff also gives an additional resource to the local police departments that can continue to prosecute their own misdemeanors cases in circuit court but may want some legal assistance from her office.
She said her office has always been there for the police prosecutors and has gone to circuit courts at the beginning of a serious or complicated case routinely in the past but, with the additional attorney, her office coupled with the felony-first program, can now offer even most assistance to police, especially in the early stages of new criminal cases.
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