‘Fair but firm’ prosecution
The other side of enforcement
“Firm but fair is the goal,” said Hamilton County Attorney Pat Chambers. “My goal as the county attorney here is to be firm with those people that commit crimes within our jurisdiction, but to be fair at the same time.”
Chambers has been the Hamilton County Attorney since 1990. He has also maintained his own private practice in the county since 1972. He has one assistant, John Beaty, who is also the Humboldt County Attorney.
“It’s important for people to understand that the county attorney’s job is to prosecute the crimes that are brought before us in a way that is both fair and impartial and that we are the representative of the state in these matters,” said Chambers.
Chambers is responsible for giving all of the county offices legal advice and represents them in any actions that involve them or the county. He is also responsible for giving legal advice and represents all of the township trustees within the county.
“Each county attorney is the state’s representative in all criminal proceedings. Iowa does not have district attorneys or attorneys that work with for the state directly that prosecute crimes,” said Chambers. “It’s the county attorney that does that, so we are the state of Iowa in all criminal proceedings from the lowest to most serious crime.”
“We have authority as county attorney to prosecute anything that occurs that is a violation of state law,” Chambers said.
Over 90 percent of those arrested for a drug-related charge and prosecuted are convicted in Hamilton County, according to Chambers.
The biggest distinction on what level of crime it is the amount, the quantity of the drug and the type of drug. Most drug offenses are measured by the weight of the drug. Another distinction that contributes to what level of crime has been committed is whether the drug was in someone’s possession with an intent to deliver.
According to Chambers, when it comes to prosecuting drug-related crimes, he sees more misdemeanors than felonies.
“We’re seeing more possession of marijuana and meth in levels that aren’t felonies. They are mostly personal-use type crime,” said Chambers.
According to Chambers, possession of marijuana is a serious misdemeanor, but it’s a special serious misdemeanor because the first offense is a maximum of six months in jail as opposed to the one year the serious misdemeanor would cover.
“Simple possession of meth or simple possession of cocaine is a serious misdemeanor and that’s a one year as opposed to simple possession of marijuana, which would be six months,” Chambers said.
A simple misdemeanor is defined by statute that is punishable by not more than thirty days in jail or a fine (fines vary depending on the offense). A serious misdemeanor is a maximum of one year in jail. An aggravated misdemeanor (highest form of misdemeanor) is punishable by up to two years in prison. A Class D Felony is a maximum of five years in prison. A Class C Felony is a maximum of ten years in prison. A Class B Felony is a maximum of 25 years in prison. A Class A Felony holds a life sentence.
“In Iowa, sentencing for felonies is what we call indeterminate, which means that the judge will sentence a person to – say for Class D Felony – up to five years in prison. They’re not going to serve five years in prison unless they’re really a bad actor in prison,” said Chambers. “The department of corrections makes the determination once they’re sentenced and arrive at the prison as to how much time they’ll serve. It’s based on a lot of criteria.”
Criteria includes: behavior, the nature of the offense, livelihood of re-occurrence and if it was a crime of violence or crime of property.
“That’s one thing that I think a lot of people don’t understand,” Chambers said. “In some respects it’s troubling because a five year sentence probably means 15 months.”
“Frankly, I think my wish is that we would have a little more impact on how much time they serve,” Chambers said.
Most arrests for possession are initiated because of traffic stops for another reason – running a light, speeding, having a headlight out or other defect in their equipment or finding them parked at an unusual place, according to Chambers.
“Possession is an easier offense to prove because it’s almost immediately determined at the time the person is confronted that leads to the arrest is whether or not they have the drugs on them or in the vehicle, where it’s located within their control,” Chambers said.
Here, it is up to officers to collect the evidence and information necessary to make a convincing case.
“Possession could be proved pretty much by the one or two officers that make the investigation that leads to the arrest just by their finding the drugs in the pockets or the purse or vehicle close enough that this person would reasonably have access to it,” Chambers said.
According to Chambers, the hardest simple possession case to prove is the one where they encounter a vehicle or go to a house where there are multiple people. The prosecution sees multiple offenders in Hamilton County.
“Whether it’s marijuana or meth or another type of drug, the problem with repeat offenders is they’re most always addicted to the controlled substance and are more in need of treatment then they are in need of being incarcerated,” Chambers said.
“I think the hardest thing about prosecuting drug crimes is sorting out the defendant as to whether or not they’re in it as a business or they’re addicted and using or selling to support their own drug habit,” Chambers said.
These individuals often use people who are addicted to do the work and distribute drugs for them, according to Chambers.
Smaller convictions have in many cases have led to the uncovering of larger drug-related crimes.
“A very high proportion of arrests for drug possession there’s always the attempt to determine whether they can provide information from higher up the ladder,” Chambers said. “Honestly, I think in probably every arrest there’s always the question of whether they can be helpful disclosing who they got the drugs from or who else might be able to provide information.”
Addiction and mental health
“Abusing drugs can lead to mental health problems. When you have a combination of substance abuse and mental health, it’s sometimes hard to tell which came first,” Chambers said. “Addiction is really ugly.”
“If they’re an addict, locking them up isn’t most likely isn’t going to get them in a position that they’re going to try and get off the controlled substance,” said Chambers. “We also need to consider rehabilitation of each person is possible and try and move the person to rehabilitate themselves rather than to simply lock them up to punish them.”
Chambers described the role prosecution takes when looking at a case where substance or alcohol addiction is present.
“The county attorney is the representative of the government in substance abuse and mental health processes when a person is alleged to be dangerous to themselves or others because of mental illness, it’s the county attorney that presents on behalf of the state to establish that the person is dangerous to himself or others,” said Chambers. “The same is true with substance abuse.”
Once the problem is diagnosed, it takes a great deal of effort to obtain the resources individuals need to get help.
“The largest problem that we have is once it’s established that they need help, and in a lot of cases they need to be hospitalized for treatment, there are so few places for them to go and they’re so full, it’s not unusual for us to have to transport somebody for the 72-hour evaluation as far as Davenport or Council Bluffs,” Chambers said.
With limited staff on the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department, the time and resources it takes to transport an individual to a proper facility can take a toll.
“That’s troubling,” Chambers said. “In those cases it’s a four hour trip each way for a deputy to take them down and then 72 hours and then they have to go back and get them.”
As more mental health facilities are being shut down across the state, finding a place for individuals who need help is incredibly difficult, according to Chambers.
“Often times we can’t find a place right away so they stay at the hospital, which doesn’t have any treatment capacity or any secure facility to keep them there, which requires a deputy to stay there,” Chambers said. “It’s just not a good situation.”
“The problem still exists that there aren’t places for them to go,” said Chambers. “We used to be able to send them over to the Ellsworth hospital in Iowa Falls because they had a psychiatrist there. That’s no longer the case.”
According to Chambers, there’s no place in Hamilton County that has the capability to do the evaluation in a hospital setting.
Unfortunately, many other Iowa counties are facing similar struggles. The need for mental health facilities is rising as more institutions are being closed.
“Hamilton County is not a unique situation,” Chambers said. “Mental health cases are rising everywhere. Some of it’s due to drug usage.”
Chambers cautions the public to abide by the law.
“You need to somehow effect a punishment that tells people that are in these circumstances this is not acceptable behavior, but at the same time, you need to fashion a result that encourages and assists those people to stop doing it. Stop making, selling and using drugs,” said Chambers.