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Plea notice filed in error in McKenzie County sheriff deputy's case

A court document that said a former McKenzie County Sheriff's Office lieutenant plans to plead guilty to criminal charges was filed in error, according to court officials, and should instead have noted that there is an upcoming agreement expected...

A court document that said a former McKenzie County Sheriff's Office lieutenant plans to plead guilty to criminal charges was filed in error, according to court officials, and should instead have noted that there is an upcoming agreement expected in the case.

The notice, dated March 30, saying that Michael Schmitz planned to submit a written guilty plea to two misdemeanor charges should have used different language, a document filed Thursday by the McKenzie County clerk of court's office says.

"The court inadvertently filed a notice to file a written plea... indicating the defendant would change his plea to guilty. This was filed in error and a notice of pending agreement should have been filed," the document reads.

The confusion took place after attorneys notified a judge that an agreement between the prosecution and defense was pending, and that there was no need for an upcoming hearing, Schmitz's attorney, Jeff Nehring, said.

"We let the court know they could take our case off of that calendar date, and what was intended to be filed was a notice of agreement," Nehring said, adding that the mistake was a simple one.

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"The clerk recognized they had just made a clerical error."

Attorneys now have 60 days to settle the case, or it will be rescheduled for trial.

"We're still trying to work toward a resolution, but at this time we have not presented anything to the court," Nehring said.

A notice of pending agreement can include a broad range of actions, including the possibility of criminal charges being put on hold and dismissed after a year if a defendant remains law-abiding, Steven Morrison, an associate professor of law at the University of North Dakota and a federal criminal defense attorney, said.

"The agreement is almost certainly not going to entail the defendant saying he committed a crime," he added.

Schmitz was charged in 2015 with two counts of providing false information to law enforcement for allegedly lying to Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents about his prescription pill use and involvement in a divorce and domestic violence case.

The Class A misdemeanor charges carry a maximum of one year in prison.

He has maintained innocence and suggested that the charges and other disciplinary actions taken against him resulted from county officials who held grudges against the sheriff for changes that he made within his department when he first took office in 2015.

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"A mistake was made and members of the media made assumptions from that mistake," he said Thursday in regards to the criminal case. "I feel irreparable harm has again been done."

Schmitz, 39, was fired early this year after the McKenzie County Commission placed him on administrative leave in October. The board said the decision was based on the findings of a workplace report that claimed Schmitz and Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger, who was suspended in November, bullied and retaliated against sheriff's office employees.

Schmitz was scheduled to appear in front of the commission in January, but was fired about a week before the hearing after Interim Sheriff Matthew Johansen said improperly documented pieces of evidence were found in his patrol car.

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