Monday, October 11, 2010

Civil suits can make great stories

They really do. Honest. They tell you who's doing shoddy work, who's not keeping promises -- how people are treating one another. If you really want to know what's going on in a community, check out who's suing whom.

Beware, however. Until a judge or jury decides the question, lawsuits are just one-sided allegations, so be fair. Talk to both sides.

Here's a sample civil suit. They usually spell out what the person suing (the PLAINTIFF) is upset about and what he or she or it (a government or corporation) wants the defendant to do about.

Here are two versions of stories written about the sample suit. Look at how careful the writers are to get the other side and to attribute the information.

Tips for Backgrounding Court Cases

  1. Check the web for stories, but don't use anything that you don't verify independently.

  2. See if your guy has a history. Conweb can help with those convicted of felonies in Montana.

  3. The county's jail roster lists people being held pending the outcome of their cases.

  4. Get the records. You can look up felony records at the clerk of district court's office. You can check misdemeanor records with the clerks in lower courts: Justice Court for Missoula County cases, Municipal Court for city of Missoula cases.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Next Week's Beat Assignment: Go to Court

Congrats. You've all been assigned to the courts beat for the week of Oct 11-15. Your task: Sit in on a session of Justice Court or a District Court law and motion session and dig up a story. The story will be due by midnight of the day you choose to go to court. I accept any stories after midnight Thursday.

Justice Court criminal sessions are held every day and run from about 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. You'll see people making their first appearance on all sorts of charges, most of them minor ones. The accused won't say much and the process consists of having the judge tell them about the charges and arranging for bail. If you see a case that intrigues you, go to the Justice Court clerk and ask for a copy of the charges and the affidavit. And then write it up.

District Court law and motion sessions are scheduled for different judges on different days. Check the schedule a day or so before you go and do a little records homework. By the way, I see that Judges Deschamps (yep, same family) and Harkin are holding their sessions Tuesday. The other two judges are taking the week off. Sorry. Look for a sentencing or an arraignment. Remember that they only do felonies in District Court.

What's newsworthy? Serious crimes, obviously. Minor crimes involving interesting circumstances could make news, too.

Local Resources for the Justice Beat

Law Enforcement




Wednesday, October 06, 2010

We're moving from local government coverage to the justice beat. You'll need to learn some new jargon so that you can translate this stuff for a reasonable reader.

Here's a link to a glossary of legal terms that should help.