Questions dog Hutchens case

SANDPOINT — Despite being a low-level offense, the battery case against Rita Nancy Hutchens has some of the trappings of a high-stakes affair.

Hutchens is charged with misdemeanor battery for allegedly throwing an ink pen at deputy city clerk last year. If convicted, she faces up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

Hutchens, a 57-year-old Sandpoint resident, failed to appear at a court hearing in the case last winter, prompting Bonner County Magistrate Court Judge Don Swanstrom to issue a day-or-night bench warrant for her arrest.

A sheriff’s deputy and Sandpoint Police executed the warrant late at night in April by forcing open the door to her home and placing her under arrest. The arrest immediately raised questions because such lengths are typical in felony offenses rather than a misdemeanor ones.

“They came onto my private property. I was asleep,” Hutchens said during a court hearing on Friday.

Police conduct in the matter appeared to catch the attention of Judge Debra Heise, who called it “extraordinary” during a hearing in May. Heise briefly reiterated those remarks on Friday and again recommended that Hutchens accept the services of a public defender.

Hutchens, however, refused the appointment of a public defender on Friday despite being arrested for willful contempt of an order requiring her to undergo a mental health evaluation prior to trial.

Hutchens repeated arrests for disregarding court orders have stirred dismay by those in the community who contend law enforcement and the courts are running amok in Bonner County.

Hutchens is a voice in that chorus, having been wrongfully arrested in 2011 for obstruction for asserting her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent while being investigated for harassment.

Hutchens also questions why the case against her is being shepherded by Bonner County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Shane Greenbank, the county’s top appointed prosecutor who mostly handles felony-level offenses.

Although the case against Hutchens is being prosecuted by the county to sidestep the appearance of a conflict of interest, it is being closely followed by city officials. City Attorney Scot Campbell attended Friday’s hearing, as did police Chief Corey Coon and Det. Derrick Hagstrom.

Hutchens argues media coverage of her case has been libelous, which has impacted her profession as a quilter and thwarted her ability to find rental housing.

“This has devastated my life,” she said.

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