St. Louis City Circuit Court Speeds Gun Cases Through New Criminal Docketing System

ST. LOUIS (April 17, 2014) — A trial assignment system that the St. Louis Circuit Court adopted January 1 for cases of illegal gun possession has shortened disposition time and reduced backlogs.

The Court adopted the system in response to concerns of City elected officials and law enforcement officers, who called for steps to bring swifter justice to those accused of gun crimes in the City.

In the first three months of this year, the Court has moved 245 gun possession cases to trial divisions, 180 of which have been disposed — 143 through guilty pleas, 11 through trial verdicts, and 26 because prosecutors dismissed them. Of the remaining 65 pending cases, approximately half are scheduled for guilty pleas in coming weeks.

Under the Court’s new system, the criminal assignment division under Circuit Judge Bryan L. Hettenbach develops a weekly docket, assigning simple gun possession cases to one of the Court’s criminal trial divisions at the first setting date following the formal filing of charges.

Formerly, the assignment division treated these cases as other felonies, automatically granting a continuance at the first setting, which postpones trial date for six weeks. After that delay, the assignment division commonly granted continuances at the request of prosecutors or defense attorneys.

The new procedure applies toall cases charging felons in possession of firearms or unlawful use of a weapon by carrying a concealed weapon or by exhibiting or flourishing a firearm. Gun cases including simple drug possession charges are included. Excluded are gun cases accompanied by any other charge involving a specific victim. These go through the normal felony docketing process.

On the first trial date of the year — January 6 —57 gun possession cases went to trial divisions. The number included some old cases as well as recent ones. That week, 28 were disposed. By the final week of the quarter, only five relatively recent cases were on the docket, three of which were disposed.

Time of disposition of these cases — from formal charge to conclusion through guilty plea, trial verdict, or dismissal by prosecutors, dropped under the new system. Cases of felons in possession were 27.2 percent shorter in duration, while case times for unlawful use of a weapon declined 14 percent.

“The cases eligible for this streamlined process are relatively straightforward and lend themselves to quick disposition whether by guilty plea or trial,” Hettenbach said. “Cases where guns were used in robberies or other crimes require more preparation time by both prosecution and defense, and no one has urged the Court to speed them through the system.

“Under this system, we have reduced the gun possession caseload to a very manageable level, ensuring that our Circuit Court will swiftly handle all gun possession cases brought by the police and circuit attorney.”