Written by Dan Blocksom – Boise County Prosecutor
The criminal prosecutor:
The county prosecutor has two very separate and distinct roles. The first role, the criminal prosecutor, is more exciting and glamorous, and should be somewhat familiar to you if you’ve watched any “Law and Order” or similar lawyer TV shows and movies. In Idaho, the county prosecutor prosecutes all felonies that occur within the county, and all infractions and misdemeanors that occur in the county when the arresting or charging officer is a state or county employee. Although TV shows might indicate otherwise, most of the time that a criminal prosecutor spends in court is not for heart-racing trials, but is rather for hearings that ensure that each defendant is adequately prepared to either agree to settle the case with the prosecutor, or go to trial.
The challenges of being a criminal prosecutor are many. Witnesses and defendants may change their stories, reviewing the reports and video recordings takes endless hours, and accurate case law research is time-consuming. As a criminal prosecutor, I had a front row seat to watch people literally destroy their own lives and the lives of those around them, and I had only very limited tools to try to pick up the pieces and make things right. One of my greatest struggles was trying to figure out a way to be fair and consistent with all defendants, amidst the never-ending treadmill of cases. If a defendant with a certain criminal history committed a certain crime, I wanted to make sure that defendant received the same punishment as another defendant with a similar history who committed a similar crime. That was much easier said than done.
The civil prosecutor:
The other role of the county prosecutor is the legal advisor, or the “civil prosecutor,” and this is the role that I usually play. This role is rarely shown in movies and TV shows because it looks rather boring and thus makes for lousy entertainment. The county prosecutor is supposed to give legal advice to the county officers, and thus functions like the “general counsel” of the county. The civil prosecutor may work on personnel matters to ensure that the county complies with state and federal employment law. The civil prosecutor may review and draft contracts to make sure that if something goes wrong, then the county is protected, and that the appropriate parties have insurance. The civil prosecutor may also help the other elected officials figure out how to implement their ideas and policies in a legal way. Fulfilling these roles typically takes a great deal of researching, reading, and writing memos.
One of the most challenging parts of the civil prosecutor’s role is that I must try to anticipate every possible way that the county could get sued. This is an impossible task. After trying to anticipate those areas of county liability exposure, I then must prioritize those areas in order of highest to lowest liability exposure in hopes that I get to all of the areas before any serious lawsuit comes knocking. This is also difficult.
In my experience of having provided civil legal advice to four different counties, county elected officials and employees usually have good intentions and do not want to break the law or create liability. The problems usually arise because of a lack of information and training, which can result from under-staffing, heavy workloads, constant personnel turnover, and a break-down in trust in the attorney.
Not free legal advisor for everyone:
Although the county prosecutor does many different things, the prosecutor cannot represent you in a private matter or provide legal advice to you as an individual. For example, if you have a dispute with your ex-spouse about the custody arrangements of your child, or with your neighbor about the terms of your HOA agreement, unfortunately the prosecutor cannot advise you and you typically will need to hire your own attorney. Not only does the prosecutor’s office not have the resources to help you with these issues, getting involved in these private civil disputes can create problems for the prosecutor’s office under the Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct.
For more information:
My office takes both of its roles very seriously and strives to do its best. For more detailed information on the roles of a county prosecutor, feel free to contact our office, or read the County Elected Officials handbook, which is available on the Idaho Association of Counties website (http://idcounties.org/documents/iac-publications/).