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New vets court in Dearborn to offer ‘rehabilitation’ tools for defendants

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Judge L. Eugene Hunt of the 19th District Court in Dearborn has always had a soft spot for veterans.

When Hunt was an attorney and saw someone who was either in uniform or wearing a veteran’s insignia in the courthouse, he would always approach them and offer to help them pro bono. “I wouldn’t charge them for it. I love vets,” said Hunt, who served in the United States Marine Corps.

Now in his second year as a judge, Hunt recently spearheaded the establishment of a Veterans Court in Dearborn. Its purpose is keep veterans with mental health and/or substance abuse problems out of the traditional criminal justice system by giving them treatment and other rehabilitation tools and options. Hunt expects that the Veterans Court will be fully functional by the end of 2018.

“The 19th District Court handles all kinds of cases,” said Hunt. “We’re talking about the criminal side of things. It handles all the misdemeanors that occur in the City of Dearborn from beginning to end. It handles the preliminary court dates for the felonies that happen here in Dearborn. The normal path for someone who’s going through the regular court system is you can plead guilty or you can take the case to trial. If you plead guilty, then you’re exposing yourself to fines, probation, jail, and other types of community service, things like that.”

According to Hunt, there are some instances where defendants can keep convictions off their record. In the case of veterans, if they’ve committed a crime – whether it’s a misdemeanor or a felony –they can be routed out of the traditional criminal justice system, plead guilty, and are placed on probation. From there, the Veterans Court administration finds out the services they need to get their life back on track.

The Veterans Court is tied to the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor and various community substance abuse programs. For educational purposes, the Veterans Court has a partnership with the University of Michigan-Dearborn “to re-educate” veterans.

“I have a couple of different unions available where I can get (veterans) training and a job,” said Hunt.  “If you need mental health services, you get those. If you need substance abuse services, you get those. If you qualify for health care benefits through the VA, you get those. At the end of your probation – and it’s a very strict and tight probation – your case is dismissed without a criminal conviction.”

Hunt conceived of the idea for a Veterans Court in Dearborn when he was running for judge in 2016. He looked at the Veterans Court at the 17th District Court in Redford as a model.

“I was very impressed by Judge (Karen) Khalil’s handling of that court. I was pleasantly surprised at all the services that were available to veterans to help them get back on track,” said Hunt. “I’ve had veterans come through here and offered them services through the Veterans Court, but they weren’t interested. That’s very important to me. If you’re not interested, I don’t want to force you into it; I only want to bring people in here who need the help and who want the help. You have to be at that point in your life where you’re tired of it all and you want to change.”

A native of Tennessee, Hunt grew up in the Detroit area. In 1962, his family settled in Dearborn, where he attended Woodworth Middle School and Fordson High School. After graduating from high school in 1973, he enlisted in the Marines Corps.

“It just felt like the right thing to do,” said Hunt, whose final rank was lance corporal. “Both of my brothers were in the Corps.”

 Upon being honorably discharged from the Marines, Hunt earned his undergraduate degree in English from U-M Dearborn and his juris doctor in law from Wayne State University Law School. He also completed coursework at what is now Henry Ford College in Dearborn and California Western University School of Law in San Diego.

Hunt has been a practicing attorney for more than 31 years. He had the criminal defense contract in Dearborn for 20 years, serving as the court-appointed public defender who represented indigent defendants.
“Ever since junior high, I had thoughts about being an attorney. I know this is a pat answer, but it’s true in my case: I wanted to help people. I was good at figuring out ways to do that. With a law degree, I had great opportunities to do that,” he explained.

When Hunt ran for judge in 2016, it was an opportunity to take another step in his career and gave him even more ways to offer a helping hand.

“The best part of my job is the ability to help people,” he said. “Just as an example, a very high percentage of the cases that come through here on the criminal side is driving on a suspended license. When I was an attorney, the only cases I got were the real bad ones where people messed their driving records up so bad, it was nearly impossible to get (their license) back with the driver’s responsibility fees and all that.”

Hunt continued: “What I find as a judge is a good 95 percent of people driving around on a suspended license can fix it very easily by paying a ticket or a driver’s responsibility fee. Maybe they have tickets in two different courts, so what I do in those circumstances is I adjourn their case and tell them to go take care of their other problem(s). When they complete our case, they’ll be eligible for a driver’s license. I try to make sure that happens. One of things we want to do is have people quit committing crimes. That’s the easy fix to driving on a suspended license. People, for the most part, go out, take care of it, come back, and get back on the road legally. It’s a very rewarding job, an extremely rewarding job because you get to help so many people.”

 

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