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After repeated winter-weather closures at the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office, a 22-year-old pregnant woman was forced to spend an unnecessary week behind bars, said 55th District Judge Thomas Boyd.
And it could happen again without plans to keep the wheels of justice rolling when the county freezes.
“The point is, it was cold and (prosecutors) didn’t go to work,” Boyd explained to City Pulse. “When people don’t go to work, bad things can happen. I’m not suggesting we tell anyone what to do. I’m not advocating for anything. All I’m saying: When there’s a scheduled court hearing, it’s not generally very nice to ignore it.”
Ingham County — except for a few key services — entirely closed on Jan. 28, 30 and 31 as a polar vortex ravaged mid-Michigan and windchill temperatures dropped below -30 degrees. Boyd kept the 55th District Court open in Mason, but he was ultimately forced to call off every scheduled hearing in the abrupt absence of the prosecution.
Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request showed Siemon on Jan. 30 emailed Boyd, “calling off witnesses for all scheduled hearings” on Jan. 31 out of concern for both the safety of her staff and subpoenaed witnesses. The move effectively halted all casework that involved the Prosecutor’s Office.
Boyd emailed back about an hour later, demanding Siemon reconsider plans to close.
“You have no authority to do so,” Boyd wrote to Siemon. “We have people being held in jail only for the purpose of these hearings. Wouldn’t a case-by-case review be more appropriate than simply announcing your intention to fail to appear? With all due respect, a phone call should have been made before this decision was made.”
Among those jailed at the time was a 22-year-old woman, pregnant seven months, with a clean record. She was charged with a felony that was later reduced to a misdemeanor before it was wiped from her record entirely, Boyd said. But without a prosecutor in the courtroom, that plea deal was ultimately delayed seven days.
“They came back and offered for her to plead to a misdemeanor and she was being held on a felony,” Boyd said. “If they had come back the day they were supposed to come back — or even telephoned it in — she wouldn’t have needed to stay in jail. There’s no reason not to make these types of arrangements over the phone.”
Boyd said he didn’t have “any inkling” of the situation at the time, only recently realizing the consequences of the weather-related closure before taking his concerns to the county Board of Commissioners.
Siemon declined an interview with City Pulse but had an assistant prosecutor provide a brief, emailed statement.
“In any individual situation, like a county weather closure, illness of an essential person, or any other emergency, someone is often inconvenienced,” Siemon said. “We’d prefer to not have weather-related closures, but they are simply sometimes warranted.”
Prosecutors said the unnamed pregnant woman’s criminal case was ultimately sealed from public disclosure under the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act. That statute gives youthful offenders a second chance to keep their criminal record clean in exchange for a guilty plea and some court-ordered probation or treatment.
“I think she’s going to struggle,” Boyd added. “I think she’s going to need a little TLC. It’s just an example of the type of things that happen if you don’t take cases when you’re supposed to take them. This does sound like common sense, but it seems I always get in trouble when I try to fight for these common-sense things.”
Records show Siemon and Boyd bickered back and forth throughout the day. Siemon said she wasn’t trying to “overstep” Boyd’s authority, referencing a “moral obligation” to keep her colleagues safe from the frigid weather. Boyd suggested the two of them meet to “have a conversation about the difference between morals and ethics.”
“I really would like to discuss processes for the future because I am committed to working with everyone in the criminal justice system and have no desire to challenge anyone else’s authority,” Siemon explained to Boyd. “This just isn’t simple. And if someone died or was harmed, I would feel I’d violated my ethical responsibility.”
Plans to assemble “skeleton crews” to keep county services operational during future weather-related closures are already underway. Bryan Crenshaw, who chairs the Ingham County Board of Commissioners, said a group of department leaders plan to continue discussions on the potential consequences of weather disruptions. It’s a balancing act, Crenshaw added.
“The prosecutor decided to go along with the rest of the county recommendations and close because of the temperatures,” Crenshaw said. “The judge decided to keep the court open. There needs to be communication between those two entities, and we need to explore the cause and effect of these types of interactions.”
Commissioner Carol Koenig suggested a makeshift team of “core services” could be expected to maintain some county operations during weather-related closures. She and her colleagues plan to explore the “most logical way” to address Boyd’s concerns while still ensuring county employees remain safe during bad weather.
“It all comes down to this: Who wants to do it?” Koenig said. “We’re not going to make people do this. I would assume that we would allow for these skeleton crews to get together, but it depends on a lot of different elements. There are union implications, facilities implications, concerns about safety and security — a lot of little pieces.”