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Justices want Franklin Co. booking center

March 13, 2000|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Franklin County district justices on Thursday presented a plan to the Board of County Commissioners to create a booking center with scheduled hours that would prevent them from being called out in the middle of the night for arraignments.

Currently, if an arrest is made late at night, the on-call district justice must go to his or her office for an initial appearance at which bond is determined, sometimes tying up the justice, the police officer and the defendant for hours.

"We wouldn't have as many middle-of-the-night calls," District Justice David Hawbaker of Mercersburg, Pa., said. It would also benefit police, who "spend hours transporting, processing and waiting," he said.

"The booking center is the most efficient" way of handling arraignments, said District Justice Larry Meminger, whose district covers Greene and Guilford townships. He suggested Franklin County Prison as a possible location.

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Cumberland County has booking centers in Carlisle, Pa., and Mechanicsburg, Pa., Meminger said. The system allows district justices to arraign defendants from their homes or offices by video.

"It's only a matter of time before everyone is going to have this," Meminger said.

A person arrested on a criminal charge would be brought to the booking center, fingerprinted, photographed and processed while awaiting arraignment before a district justice, he said.

Meanwhile, police would be able to go back to their duties. Meminger suggested arraignments could be held at regular hours, such as 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

New technologies make the centers possible, according to Meminger. Those include Live Scan, a fingerprint system similar to a computer scanner.

"It actually allows us to know who is in front of us," Meminger said.

If a person refuses to give a name or gives a phony name, the system does a criminal background check based on fingerprints to determine if he or she is wanted anywhere in the country.

Video arraignments would reduce the time spent transporting prisoners to the six district justice offices spread around the county. Having the booking center at the prison would also reduce transport time, Meminger said.

The center, however, would need holding cells and personnel to process defendants awaiting arraignment. Meminger said grants may be available through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and other sources.

An alternative to a booking center is a holding center, where prisoners could be held until a district justice is available for arraignment. The district justices said the Chambersburg and Waynesboro police departments have "agreed in theory" to that idea.

Commissioner G. Warren Elliott asked the justices to provide figures on arraignments, and plans are being made for county officials to see how the Cumberland County system works.

The way preliminary hearings are conducted is also set to change in July. Hearings will be held one day a week at the county courthouse, rather than at the six district justices offices on any given day, according to Franklin County District Attorney John F. Nelson.

Nelson said the courthouse hearings will mean attorneys from his office will be able to attend virtually all preliminary hearings. "Every preliminary hearing I go to, unless it's a homicide or other violent crime, we always try to explore the possibility of coming to an agreement," he said.

Having the hearings at the courthouse would enable prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims and defendants to work out plea agreements earlier in the judicial process, Nelson said.

The county handles more than 2,200 criminal cases a year, Nelson said.

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