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MONTANA STATE SUPREME COURT
by MONTANA NEWS ASSOCIATION
Billings Montana.,May 19, 2008--/MNA PRESS/--It’s no secret to those who keep an eye on the proceedings of Billings Municipal Court that Mary Jane Knisely has been wielding power much after the manner of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, for quite some time. Last year, Judge Knisely was questioned by Montana State senators and the Montana State Attorney General’s office regarding disturbing information that had come to light regarding the Billings Municipal Court. At issue were the court’s practices that relate to Misdemeanor Probation and Misdemeanor Pre-Trial Supervision.
Billings Municipal Court Judge Mary Jane Knisely, in her written response to Montana State Senator Roy Brown’s inquiries into the dubious, unethical and potentially illegal way in which she was running her court, made the following assertion: “I am confident that you will find that the practices in Billings Municipal Court adhere to Montana law and reflect my prevailing concern for the rights of those who appear before me.”
However, just one year later, the Montana State Supreme Court took extreme measures by imposing an “extraordinary remedy” in the form of supervisory control, over Judge Knisely’s arbitrary imposition of her own will on a case that came before her.
The facts of the case: On December 17, 2007, Christina Friedt was issued citations for Stop Sign Violation, Failure to have Drivers License in Immediate Possession and Failure to Exhibit Proof of Insurance. Friedt appeared before Judge Mary Jane Knisely one month later, on January 17, 2008. Friedt pled guilty to the Stop Sign Violation and was given a warning for Failure to have Driver’s License in Immediate Possession. At this appearance before Judge Knisely, Friedt executed a Waiver of Rights and Entry of Plea of Guilty for those offenses. However, Friedt entered a Not Guilty Plea to the No Insurance citation and an Omnibus Hearing (a pretrial hearing with the main purpose of the introduction of evidence, including testimony from police officials and seizing evidence from the defendant) was set for February 12, 2008. Friedt appeared before Judge Knisely for the Omnibus Hearing, at which time she advised the court that she did not wish to have a trial on the No Insurance ticket, but chose instead to plead guilty to the charge. Friedt was sentenced to six months in jail, all suspended on condition that she pay a $500.00 fine, plus $45.00 court surcharge and surrender the plated and registration from the vehicle for 180 days. Upon request, Friedt was allowed to complete community service in lieu of the fine.
At this point, the case, legally, was settled. Christina Friedt had been charged with violations of the law, had appeared in court, eventually had pleaded guilty to all charges, and had been sentenced on all charges. Case closed.
It was Billings Municipal Court Mary Jane Knisely’s following arbitrary actions that prompted the Montana State Supreme Court to step in and force Judge Knisely to follow the law, rather than write her own.
A few days after the Omnibus Hearing, Judge Knisely received an ex-parte e-mail communication from Deputy City Attorney Curtis Bevolden, the prosecutor in the Friedt case. (Ex parte contact occurs when an attorney communicates with another party outside the presence of that party’s attorney. Ex parte contact also describes a judge who communicates with one party to a lawsuit to the exclusion of the other party or parties. Canon 3(A)(4) of the American Bar Association Model Code of Judicial Conduct mandates “A judge shall perform the duties of judicial office impartially and diligently”, thus discouraging judges from such ex parte communications.) The purpose of Attorney Bevolden’s e-mail was to determine whether Friedt had been ordered to pay restitution to Moira D’Alton for the damage done to D’Alton’s fence by Friedt. Moira D’Alton, unbeknownst to Christina Friedt, had sent numerous inquiries to the Billings Police Department, City Attorney’s office and Municipal Court, advising of her restitution claim in the amount of $440.00.
Municipal Court Judge Mary Jane Knisely claims never to have received any such written communication from D’Alton, due to the communication allegedly having been sent to the wrong address.
One week after having received the ex-parte communication from Attorney Bevolden, Judge Knisely issued an ex-parte Order, stating that the Court had been unaware of any restitution claim during the history of the case. Then Judge Knisely, with a metaphorical shake of her head, wave of her hand and Queen of Hearts caustic sniping of “Idiot!”, commented that Friedt had not been afforded counsel at her arraignment on the No Insurance charge and therefore Friedt had not entered into a “constitutionally sound, intelligent, knowing, voluntary plea of Guilty.”
Judge Mary Jane Knisely, in an arrogant display of flagrant abuse of power, ignored the law and simply did as she pleased, reopening the case against Friedt, in order to give the prosecuting attorney another go at the Defendant.
Upon Judge Knisely’s Order, the State Public Defender’s office assigned local private attorney Jeanne Walker, who contracts with their office, to the case. The majority of Attorney Walker’s practice is criminal defense, as well as some family law. According to Attorney Walker, the case presented unusual challenges from the onset, as it had been reopened by the judge, rather than a defendant seeking to remove a guilty plea and sentence. On the contrary, Christina Friedt had neither initiated the action, nor wished for anything to be changed in the case. “To be honest, I don’t think she (Christina) knew what was happening to her. I had to explain to her that pursuant to case law there had been a final judgment issued in her case and the Municipal Court didn’t have jurisdiction to hear her case again,” Walker told the Montana News in a phone interview on Friday.
Based on research she had already conducted, Walker advised her client that the correct route to take was to apply to the Montana State Supreme Court for a Writ of Supervisory Control and to Stay Lower Court Proceedings. Walker cited case precedence that had found and sustained that “once a valid sentence has been pronounced, the court loses jurisdiction to vacate or modify the sentence, except as otherwise provided by statute.”
When asked if Walker had had any reservations regarding such a public and radically definitive challenge to Judge Knisely, the criminal defense attorney simply responded, “I was just doing my job as an attorney to represent the best interest of my clients.”
The Supreme Court received the application on April 9, 2008 and, after allowing the Municipal Court to respond, issued an Opinion and Order, written by Chief Justice Karla Gray, on May 13, 2008.
According to Chief Justice Gray, the Montana State Supreme Court found that Judge Knisely, in ordering the withdrawal of Christina Friedt’s guilty pleas, acted “sua sponte” (meaning on one’s own volition, usually referring to a judge’s order made without a request by any party to the case), and had constituted a “mistake of law causing a gross injustice.”
Chief Justice Gray effectively dismissed Deputy City Attorney Curtis Bevolden’s assertion that he failed to raise any issue regarding restitution before Friedt was sentence, because he had been “distracted” by other activity with several other defendants. Chief Justice Gray also rejected Bevolden’s “misplaced” reliance on an MCA statute that grants a new trial, which placed the parties in the same position as if there had been no trial. Grey specified, “Nothing in the statute authorizes a new proceeding to benefit an alleged victim or a prosecutor who failed to timely raise a sentencing matter.” Gray also wrote, “Nothing in the plain language of…MCA, authorizes a court, in essence, to forcibly withdraw a defendant’s plea sua sponte under any circumstance…We conclude the Municipal Court’s sua sponte order withdrawing Friedt’s guilty pleas – contrary to the undisputed facts of record and Friedt’s characterization of her pleas – constitutes a mistake of law causing a gross injustice.”
The Montana State Supreme Court ordered that Friedt’s application for a writ of supervisory control be granted and that the case be remanded to the Municipal Court with instructions to vacate the February 28, 2008 order withdrawing Friedt’s guilty pleas.
Justices Patricia Cotter, Jim Rice and Brian Morris concurred with Chief Justice Gray’s Opinion. Justice James Nelson concurred, with the caveat that in his view there was nothing illegal in the trial court’s sentence prior to the court’s sua sponte action, specifying that he was “shocked at the prosecutor’s and court’s handling” of the matter. Justice Nelson further elaborated on the Opinion and Order: “While the Billings Municipal Court may be very busy, the ‘activity’ of the omnibus hearings, as the prosecutor describes it, is hardly the fault – or the problem – of defendants appearing before the court. If the prosecutor makes mistakes because of being distracted by negotiations or because he was in another courtroom, then the consequences of his error – or the system’s failure – should not fall on the defendant. Friedt came to court as ordered; she entered a lawful plea after being advised of her rights; she was legally sentenced. She should not, again, be required to repeat this process to undo alleged mistakes made by the State in the first go-around.”
Billings Municipal Court Judge Mary Jane Knisely is a member of the Commission on Courts of Limited Jurisdiction and mentors other municipal court judges.
Editor's Note: Judge Knisley is just as bad as the criminals. She is a non-law abiding Judge who finally has been caught, Judge Mary Jane Knisely runs nothing but a KANGAROO municpal court. Some one call a ZOO keeper, PLEASE.