Felonies On Track to Double This Year in Lake County

County attorney’s office has filed charges in more than 100 felony cases this year

By Justin Franz

The number of felony cases filed in Lake County District Court this year is far outpacing last year’s total, according to County Attorney Steve Eschenbacher.

Eschenbacher, who took office earlier this year, said that during the first quarter of 2015, his office has filed more than 100 felony cases. In 2014, the county attorney’s office filed about 240 felony cases for the entire year. The county’s top attorney said the increase in cases is not because more people are breaking the law but because the prosecutor’s office is fully staffed for once.

“It’s not that I’m looking for crime, it’s that we’ve got the staff (to do the work),” he said, adding that the office was short an attorney until last month.

Eschenbacher said the local child and family services office is also fully staffed again, which is contributing to cases in that area. However, the biggest reason for an increase in felony charges this year is that the Montana State Crime Laboratory is now processing and returning drug evidence faster than ever. Eschenbacher said in his past experience, it would take the crime lab a year to process drug evidence, but now it’s getting done in a few months. That means prosecutors can bring charges against someone without worrying that the charges will have to be dropped because the accused did not get a speedy trial.

According to Phil Kinsey, forensic science division administrator at the crime lab in Missoula, his office receives about 1,800 drug-related cases a year. Last month, he told the Beacon that the time it takes to analyze drugs has gotten longer in recent years because the substances are getting more complicated.

Eschenbacher took office in January, six months after he defeated incumbent Lake County Attorney Mitch Young in the 2014 Republican primary. There was no challenger during the November general election. Prior to coming to the county attorney’s office, Eschenbacher was a public defender and often had cases against the office he now holds. Eschenbacher said he ran because the county attorney’s office was disorganized and hard to get ahold of in the past.

Now that he is in office, Eschenbacher hopes to work more with the Lake County Sheriff and Polson Police Department and is even planning on helping them organize safety checkpoints to find drunk drivers. Eschenbacher said that a lot of people think they can get away with having a few drinks and driving and he wants to end that.

“We want to let people know that you will get caught,” he said.

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