Being Sensitive To Perceptions

Justice isn’t supposed to depend on who you know. But to some extent, it may have in Ohio County earlier this month.

As we have reported, Wheeling police arrested a woman on a DUI charge on Nov. 10. She was with a man who police say also was intoxicated. He was issued a citation for failure to produce a driver’s license, then released.

Before the man was released, he told police he knows both the current and former sheriffs of Ohio County. He also mentioned he is related to a magistrate. That does not seem to have affected how he was treated by Wheeling police.

Then, police began to transport the woman to the Northern Regional Jail in Moundsville. While en route, they were contacted by Ohio County Magistrate Patricia Murphy, the arrested man’s cousin.

Murphy, who was the on-duty magistrate at the time, told officers to turn around and take the woman to the magistrate court in Wheeling.

There, according to Murphy, she arraigned the woman and released her in the custody of another woman. Police dispute that, saying Murphy began but did not complete the arraignment process.

At some point, Murphy asked that officers not include her name on their report of the incident.

Murphy insists she did nothing improper, but merely treated the woman as she would have anyone arrested for first-offense DUI. The state Supreme Court, which oversees magistrates, agrees Murphy was within the bounds of her authority.

But Deputy Police Chief Martin Kimball told our reporter what happened after the arrest was “highly irregular.”

Obviously, had Murphy not intervened, the woman probably would have spent the night in jail. That is not uncommon in DUI cases.

It is clear that at some point in the process, Murphy became aware her cousin was involved. At that point the prudent thing to have done would have been to call in another magistrate, to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.

Even with four magistrates in Ohio County, it is inevitable all will find themselves with cases involving people they know, from time to time. Again, that is unavoidable.

But appearances are important, especially when they concern perceptions of the justice system. That needs to be taken into account by magistrates, who should avoid situations in which family relationships may result in accusations of favoritism.