The Platte County Prosecutor’s Office won a battle in The Missouri Supreme Court in prosecuting attorney Eric Zahnd’s dispute with the circuit court in Platte County. Zahnd filed legal actions earlier this year asking the Supreme Court to stop two Platte County judges from reducing felony-stealing cases to misdemeanors.
“Prosecutors have an obligation to uphold the rule of law,” he said. “In these cases, the Supreme Court essentially said there is no get out of jail free card, and everyone still has to play by the rules if defendants want to have sentences reduced.”
The dispute arose out of State v. Bazell, which threw thousands of felony-stealing cases into doubt in 2016.
Zahnd’s office played a central role in the statewide effort to limit the ability of convicted felons to have their charges reduced on a legal technicality. Platte County executive assistant prosecuting attorney Joe Vanover began the effort shortly after the Bazell decision, arguing the two most recent cases for Zahnd in September after he returned to private practice.
Vanover is now an appellate lawyer in Kansas City, Mo. after leaving the Platte County Prosecutor’s Office.
The Missouri State Public Defender’s Office argued that a line of cases dating back more than 30 years allowed two Platte County judges to change sentences that were contrary to law. At Zahnd’s insistence, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned those cases.
In an opinion released on Tuesday, Nov. 21, the Supreme Court acknowledged that prosecutors can only ask to halt local judges’ decisions “in cases of extreme necessity.” However, the Supreme Court agreed with Zahnd that allowing the Platte County judges’ rulings to stand could lead to “a chaos of review unlimited in time, scope, and expense,” according to the opinion.
The impact of Zahnd’s victories will potentially reach hundreds of other cases throughout Missouri where courts and local prosecutors are grappling with the aftermath of the Bazell case. The wins in the Supreme Court come on the heels of losses in the Missouri Court of Appeals, which declined to hear the same cases in April.
“A prosecutor’s duty is to do what is right,” Zahnd said. “In these cases, we were told we were wrong by the local judges and then by the judges on the Court of Appeals, but now, the Supreme Court has unanimously said we were right from the start.”
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office usually handles appellate cases for Missouri prosecutors.
However, Zahnd has directed his office to handle some important appellate cases. These cases are the sixth and seventh wins in the appellate courts for Zahnd’s office.