By Tina Alvey
Rainelle Police Chief J.P. Stevens staged a news conference at Town Hall Wednesday afternoon to draw attention to a public safety issue he says is being caused by a magistrate’s lack of cooperation with law enforcement.
According to Stevens, Greenbrier County Magistrate Brenda J. Smith many times hesitates to issue warrants, questioning the officer requesting the document and often requiring corrections be made to the complaint.
“Every time officers go to the magistrate’s office, we have trouble getting (Smith) to issue a warrant,” Stevens said in an interview with The Register-Herald following the news conference.
“(Smith) wants to try the case before she’ll issue a warrant,” Stevens maintained. ”We only need probable cause to get it issued, but she always wants more information than what’s required.”
The magistrate’s demands create delays in pursuing the subject of the warrant, often to the detriment of public safety, Stevens stated.
Factoring in travel time to the county’s only magistrate office, which is located in Lewisburg — a drive of some 40 to 45 minutes from Rainelle — then waiting up to two hours to secure the warrant, Stevens said his town is often without a police officer on duty for four hours or more.
“It takes protection away from Rainelle,” he said.
Stevens said individual lives are also jeopardized by the officers’ inability to swiftly obtain warrants, using as an example his own experience Tuesday afternoon, when he investigated an alleged stalking incident involving a suspect who is subject to an emergency protection order.
The alleged victim had received 125 text messages and multiple voice messages from her ex-boyfriend, who was threatening violence, Stevens said.
Stevens said he faxed a warrant request to the magistrate’s office prior to leaving Rainelle for Lewisburg, but when he arrived at the office at 3:45 p.m., Smith made him amend his complaint to identify two specific messages left by the man, rather than simply referring to the volume of contacts the ex-boyfriend had allegedly attempted to make with the woman who had a protective order in place.
“Then at 4:36 p.m., (Smith’s) assistant came out of her office and said I’d have to wait until the next day to get the warrant, because it was past closing time,” Stevens fumed.
“(Smith) ran for that job; she needs to put the time in,” he said. “Law enforcement in this county is tired of it”
Stevens said, “This is the same thing we go through with her all the time, but this time, she endangered (the victim’s) life. Enough is enough. It’s got to stop.”
The alleged victim, who identified herself as Beverly McClure, also spoke with The Register-Herald Wednesday, saying she is afraid of her ex-boyfriend, whom neither she nor Stevens named.
“He has been threatening to cut my throat — to kill me,” McClure said of the ex-boyfriend.
She also railed against Smith, claiming, “She put my life in more danger.”
McClure said in an incident a couple of months ago, her ex strangled her. Afterward, “he called the law on me, and I called the law on him,” she said.
Stevens said, after finally obtaining the requested warrant at 9:39 a.m. Wednesday, he had faxed it to authorities in Summers County to execute.
“I have to look after my people’s safety down here,” he said.
Stevens said he understands that other law enforcement officers have experienced similar difficulty with Smith and have gone so far as to discuss their complaints with Greenbrier County’s circuit judges.
Chief Circuit Judge James J. Rowe was not available for comment on the situation Wednesday, according to a clerk in his office.
In response to a telephone inquiry from The Register-Herald, Smith’s secretary said, “Magistrate Smith believes that the Code of Judicial Conduct would prohibit her from commenting.”