With the population rising in Platte County, so is the crime rate. It’s a message heard from county administration for several years, but the point was driven home again by newly re-elected prosecutor Eric Zahnd this week.
Zahnd — who after his unopposed re-election in November remains the longest-serving county prosecutor in the state — delivered his annual report of prosecutions to the Platte County Commission on Monday, Dec. 3.
In the year running from October 2017 until Nov. 1, the Platte County Prosecutor’s Office staff have filed 653 felony charges — the second highest number in the county’s history. Prosecutors filed 676 felony charges last year. Currently, nine of those cases are pending murder cases, including the upcoming capital murder trial of Grayden Denham, accused of killing four members of his family and burning down the family home.
“It’s fair to say that there is an increasing seriousness of crimes that we are facing here in our community,” Zahnd said, noting that those felonies include robberies, assaults and sex crimes against both adults and children. These cases take longer to prosecute and involve more complex matters, including forensic work and expert consulting.
In the past, Platte County was insulated from much violent crime as a suburban/rural county, but over the last decade crime has bled from the urban core, Zahnd said. It’s not happening just in Platte County, but across the country, he said.
“We are very fortunate that Platte County is the fasted-growing county in the state of Missouri,” Zahnd said. “That’s a great thing, but it also means just because we have more people in the county we’re going to have more crime.”
The numbers of misdemeanor charges filed has also risen. This year, 2,835 misdemeanor charges were filed, compared to 2,681 filed last year. Zahnd said the number of bad check prosecutions has plummeted, but other kinds of misdemeanors have risen, especially first-time DWI and domestic violence cases.
The prosecutor’s office also handled more than 6,000 traffic-related cases and Zahnd said that number will dramatically increase next year. The State of Missouri is phasing out the Fine Collection Center, which serves as a centralized clearing house handling the processing of traffic fines. Starting next year, counties will be forced to handle these cases in-house. Zahnd said he hopes to tackle the increased workload with his existing staff, but time will tell if that is feasible.
Commissioners asked Zahnd about the pending legalization of medical marijuana, approved by voters in November. Last month, Jackson County prosecutors announced that they would stop prosecution of most minor marijuana possession offenses.
“In Platte County, we’re going to enforce the law,” Zahnd said. “It’s not my job as prosecutor to choose which laws to enforce.”
Zahnd said marijuana remains illegal for recreational use at the state and federal level and only can be used by those with medical certification. He said he is worried about unintended consequences of the legalization and that in talks with his peers in states where marijuana has been legalized for either medical or recreational purposes there has been an increase in other types of crime, such as driving under the influence of marijuana.
Zahnd also briefly spoke about a bill signed into law this week that consolidates treatment court programs. Platte County currently operates three treatment courts, including for drug abuse and DWI. A treatment court to assist veterans is currently in the works, he said.