Highland County Common Pleas Court Judge Rocky Coss has kept the court’s docket current while handling nearly 1,000 new or reopened cases during the past year, and efficient management along with technological advances have kept costs down for the court.
In a report compiled for the eighth straight year detailing the court’s activity, Coss said cases in both the General and Domestic Relations divisions have been current now for several years, based on the guidelines of the Ohio Supreme Court.
The state’s top court “has adopted time guidelines within which cases should be completed,” wrote Coss. “For example, the time guideline for criminal cases is six months from the date of arraignment. The guideline for foreclosures to be complete is twelve months from date of filing and for most other civil cases it is twenty-four months.”
Coss, who became judge in 2008, wrote, “There have been no past pending criminal cases in the General Division of this court since April of 2009 and no past pending civil cases since March of 2010,” wrote Coss, adding, “there have been no past pending cases in the Domestic Relations Division since March of 2010.”
Coss said the caseload in 2015 was similar to 2014. “The total number of new and reopened cases filed in the General Division in 2015 was 649 compared to 633 cases in 2014. The total of new and reopened cases in Domestic Relations was 341 compared to 346 cases in 2014. The total number of cases in both divisions for 2015 was 990 compared to 979 in 2014,” said the judge in his report.
As of December 31, 2015, there were 188 total cases pending in the General Division, compared to 198 pending as of December 31, 2014. In the Domestic Relations Division, there were 99 cases pending at the end of 2015 compared to 93 at the end of 2014, Coss said.
“In 2015 there were 278 new and reopened criminal cases compared to 250 in 2014 which represents an 11 percent increase,” said Coss. “The statistics for criminal cases do not include indictments that were filed but not served or cases filed in which indictments were not returned. Therefore, there is a variance between the Clerk of Courts’ numbers and this report.”
Prior to 2010, the number of annual criminal cases had been decreasing since 2006, Coss said. “Since 2011, the number of criminal cases filed annually in the court has increased by 44percent. It should be noted that these statistics do not include any post-sentencing proceedings in criminal cases such as probation violations, restitution hearings, modification of probation conditions, judicial release hearings and other proceedings that occur in many cases after they are closed for current reporting purposes,” according to Coss.
Coss said that the time for a criminal case to be completed from the date of indictment decreased, as it has for each of the past six years. In 2014, the average time to complete a criminal case from the date of arraignment in the Common Pleas court to the date of final disposition was 64.69 days, compared to 66.02 days for 2013.
For the year 2007, the average number of days from arraignment to completion was 201.87 days, representing a reduction of 68percent. Cases from 2015 “are not included in this report since many are still open,” said Coss.
For the third straight year, there was a decrease in the number of foreclosure cases, “although not as significant as the past two years,” said Coss. He said there were 129 new foreclosure cases and five reopened cases in 2015, for a total of 134.
“This compares to 141 new cases and 3 reopened cases for a total of 144 in 2014,” said Coss.
In a statistic reflecting the mortgage crisis of 2008 and 2009, the judge said that the largest number of foreclosure cases filed in one year since 2003 was in 2009, when there were 381 new cases filed and 12 cases reopened for a total of 393. The 2015 total represents a 66 percent reduction over the past six years.
There were 237 other types of new and reopened civil cases filed in 2015 compared to 239 filed in 2013. The average number of days to complete civil cases filed in 2014 was 137.85 compared to 154.65 for 2013 civil cases, said Coss. In 2007, the average time to complete a civil case was 167.89 days. This represents an 18 percent reduction. The data for 2015 cases is not yet available as there are many civil cases still pending.
Coss conducted jury trials in four criminal and one civil case in 2015, six criminal cases in 2014, and nine in 2013. Four of last year’s jury trials were completed in one day. Since Coss took the bench in August of 2008, “the court has been averaging approximately nine jury trials per year,” said Coss. The judge said Thursday that the decrease in jury trials is a statewide trend because of different sentencing and treatment options available now.
Coss said that since the implementation of the video arraignment system in March of 2009, “the court has conducted 1,906 video hearings, including over 330 for prisoners in state prisons or other out of county facilities.
“This is an average of approximately 23 hearings per month,” said Coss. In 2015, the court conducted 331 video hearings, 65 of which were for prisoners in state prisons or other out of county facilities.
Video and digital
“These video hearings have saved the sheriff’s department thousands of dollars in costs of transporting prisoners to court from the local jail or from the out of county locations and supervising them in custody during their time in the courthouse,” wrote Coss. “It also allows the court to conduct the hearings more quickly since it is much easier to get the prisoner to the video room at the Justice Center as opposed to arranging for transport to the courthouse.”
The court’s website, which became operational in February of 2011, “continues to be a very valuable asset to both the county and the public. The website contains the calendars for the general and domestic relations divisions as well as court indexes and dockets,” said Coss.
“Visitors to the site can view and download the local court rules and appendices. They can also view the events scheduled in a case and the past events in the docket. There is also a juror information page for potential jurors to learn about jury service and an announcement box for announcements about jury trials and other events taking place in the court,” Coss wrote.
The court website now has a “pay court costs” button on the website which people can use in lieu of mailing checks or coming to the clerk’s office in person. The Clerk of courts now accepts credit card payment for court costs and deposits, said Coss.
The usage reports for the website for 2015 indicate that there were approximately 8,500 visits to the site each month, which represents more than 283 visits per day, said Coss.
The E-Access portion of the website allows visitors to the site to search the court indexes and view dockets and other information for individual cases.
“In cooperation with Clerk of courts Ike Hodson, the court hopes to upgrade this service in 2016 to allow viewing and printing of all non-confidential documents filed in each case,” said Coss. “This would include pleadings such as indictments or civil complaints, judgment entries, motions and other documents filed by the parties. The cost of this expanded service will be shared by the Clerk of courts and the court and will be paid for from special revenue funds of each office which are derived from fees paid by the parties filing cases in the court and not from tax revenues.”
The use of e-filing is increasing in courts across the country. “This allows attorneys and parties representing themselves to file certain documents with the court via the internet instead of mailing or personally delivering papers to the Clerk of courts office for filing,” said Coss. The judge said he and Hodson “are working with the E-Access vendor to make that available in 2016. There will not be any financial cost to the county as it will be a user fee system in which the party or an attorney will pay for each filing or perhaps pay a fee for a certain number of filings in a case or in a certain time period.”
The court’s original general fund budget for 2015 was $214,947.00, which was less than the court’s actual expenditures in 1998 of $218, 296.88, Coss noted. The actual general fund expenditures for 2015 were $206,340.11, which was 4 percent less than the amount originally appropriated by the county commissioners.
Since there were 27 pay periods for employees in 2015 rather than the normal 26, in November the commissioners increased the annual appropriation to $221,490.11. In December, the court was able to transfer back to the commissioners $15,150 of unexpended funds, said Coss.
In March of 2014, the Highland County Common Pleas court received a $375,000 Smart Ohio Program Grant from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections to be used for intensive treatment of felony offenders who were abusing or addicted to opiates and/or methamphetamine, said Coss.
“In August of 2015, the court was awarded a renewal grant of $435,000 for fiscal years 2016-2017,” said Coss. “This grant funds an intensive treatment program beginning with sessions five days per week for three hours a day tapering down over an eight month period as determined by the progress of the offender. It also provides medication-assisted therapy to offenders.”
The court is also utilizing this treatment option in conjunction with residential treatment services provided through the STAR Community Justice Center and other residential treatment providers in other counties. Offenders sentenced to complete the STAR program or another residential treatment program must report to FRS after successful completion as part of their aftercare, said Coss.
“All of the grant funds are being paid to FRS Counseling for treatment services for the offenders. The court is not using any of the funds for administrative costs as court employees are providing those services within the course of their normal work hours,” said Coss.