Courtroom violence: what we can do about it.
* In the St. Louis County Courthouse, an estranged husband in a divorce proceeding reached into his briefcase and pulled out two pistols. He shot and killed his wife, then wounded two attorneys, a bailiff, and a security guard.
* At the Tarrant County (Tex.) Courthouse, a spectator at an appellate hearing opened fire in a courtroom, slaying two lawyers and wounding another along with two judges. When he turned himself in, the gunman said he was angry about a divorce and child molestation charge against him.
* In Grand Forks, N.D., a man brought before the court because of failure to pay child support shot and wounded the judge.
The areas near courtrooms also are the sites of increased violence. People have been killed in courthouse halls and while approaching the main doors. At the Colbert County (Ala.) Courthouse, a woman shot a relative during a visit to a probation officer. A woman on the way to file a harassment complaint was murdered by her former husband as she was about to enter a courthouse in Beaumont, Tex. In the basement parking garage of the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago, a prisoner returning from a courtroom appearance killed two marshals.
Media attention sometimes distorts the true dimensions of a problem. Yet, instead of exaggerating courtroom dangers, the media unintentionally may be minimizing them. Because only the most serious incidents make the headlines, courtrooms appear safer than they are. "Someone gets shot in a courthouse, and you get a lot of attention," points out Don Hardenbergh, a senior staff associate for the National Center for State Courts, Williamsburg, Va. "In terms of shoving, pushing, verbal abuse, and intimidation, a lot goes on in courtrooms that should worry people."
When violence erupts in a courtroom, there always are at least two victims - the injured or threatened person(s) and the justice system. The extent of the damage can be difficult to gauge, and the exact number of violent incidents and their nature are unknown. Even the possibility of danger takes its toll. "The threat of violence may be enough to keep someone from testifying," Hardenbergh indicates.
Court administrators are asking basic questions, such as what priority does security deserve in court budgets and what equipment or training is needed to keep courts safe? Courts that take too few precautions risk the lives of lawyers, judges, and trial participants. Yet, excessive security measures can help create an oppressive atmoshpere where a defendant's guilt is presumed too easily.
How dangerous are the courts? All indications point to a potential for violence that should be taken seriously. During 1989-90, the National Sheriffs' Association asked courts, sheriffs, and law enforcement agencies to report recent violent incidents in state and local courts. By December, 1990, 243 violent acts had been recorded, the majority of which were attacks. However, many other incidents never were reported. Only 29 states participated in the survey, and even they didn't send reports on every occurrence.
The U.S. Marshals Service tracks all threats against Federal judges and, in 199 1, recorded 362 validated threats against them. The seriousness of these is underscored by the number of weapons the marshals confiscated at courthouse security checkpoints - more than 8,000 in 1991. That doesn't include the 220,000 concealed weapons law enforcement officials forgot to check in at the front door.
Organized crime and neighborhood gangs add to the threat involved in some criminal trials. In civil cases - especially in domestic relations courts - frustration with the justice system may trigger courtroom violence. For generations, courthouses have been that neutral ground between husband and wife, between the estate and the people of the estate. And people have felt they could get a fair hearing. When a person no longer feels it is a neutral ground, the courthouse becomes a place for violent confrontation," according to Charles Meeks, executive director of the National Sheriffs'Association.
Needed: increased security
Meeks is a strong proponent of increasing security measures at state and local courthouses. "The security in courts is in bad condition," he notes. "With the amount of courthouse violence we now experience, the situation is worse than I've ever seen before."
At the minimum, courthouses should have fewer entrances and there should be metal detectors at checkpoints, he maintains. Other security practices and equipment: Meeks considers necessary include trained security officers, electronic monitoring within the courthouse, and duress alarms at each judge's station.
"You should get the protection you need, based on a threat analysis" Meeks recommends. In courthouses, the weapon of choice is the pistol. Magnetometers reduce this threat dramatically. If the threat analysis indicates a risk from plastic explosives, dynamite, or even plastic guns, then X-ray equipment and dogs would be appropriate precautions. However, plastic guns currently present a very low risk to courthouse security since very few people can get hold of those weapons.
District Judge Thomas Clark Dawson of the 57th Judicial District keenly feels the difference between minimum security guidelines and courthouse reality. He is cochair of the American Bar Association Committee on Court Facilities Security, Space and Access. From his chambers in the Nelson County Courthouse in Bardstown, Ky., he serves as a national resource of information for courthouse planners. Yet, each day, Judge Dawson works in a dangerous environment.
"We're in a situation where, one of these days, we can have a major problem here. Our security is woefully inadequate," Dawson points out. State court security advisors conducted a security audit on the Nelson County Courthouse and recommended improvements. "We were able to put up a little sign that said, |Warming, you are subject to a search," but there aren't any funds to actually have a metal detector."
If judges at the Nelson County Courthouse want to work in a secure environment, they must help raise money for metal detectors. Walk-through detectors cost about $4,000; hand-held devices, approximately $300. The state security advisors suggested that, if the local bar would donate half the money needed for a metal detector, the state would provide the other half.
According to a report from the National Center for State Courts, many states are having to cut budgets of judicial departments. Judges of overdocketed, underfunded courts may wish for increased security, but settle for the status quo. With limited funds, any new expenses are balanced by cuts in existing services. "Do you sacrifice a court that is properly functioning in order to have a safe one?," asks Judge Dawson.
Although many judges are concerned about courtroom security, others have an it-happens-to-the-other-guy attitude. "Some judges feel that the law of averages protects them," indicates Associate Circuit Judge Samuel Hais of St. Louis County. Judge Hais is the "other guy." On May 5, 1992, his courtroom became a battleground. With no warning, a defendant in a divorce proceeding leaned across the table and shot his wife and several lawyers, then aimed for Judge Hais, who ducked behind his bench, barely escaping the attack. "We are lulled into a sense of false security," notes Hais, who now has a metal detector outside his courtroom.
The perception of danger varies from county to county and from person to person. After a woman frightened a Detroit judge with a starter pistol, The Detroit News ran a headline: "Judges Sitting Ducks' in City-County Courts." In another part of Michigan, The Lansing State Journal editorialized against Clinton County Circuit Judge Timothy Green, who had stated that, unless he received more courtroom security, he would stop hearing criminal or domestic cases. The editor wrote that the judge's actions were "a silly decree, singling out his courtroom for protection against society's weirdos."
Gilbert Skinner, president of SCH Inc., a Lansing-based security company that provides training for court officials, is appalled by the newspaper's attitude. "I can't believe we still have that type of mentality out there. I can't think of a place where there is more emotion on a regular basis that is constantly ready to explode than in a courtroom."
The emotional distress associated with divorce cases and domestic violence makes the domestic relations courts especially vulnerable to violence. According to the 1990 report by the National Sheriffs' Association, criminal courts accounted for slightly more than half of reported incidents of violence; about 46% of the incidents took place in civil courts.
Without exception, court administrators point to domestic violence as a major reason for the increase in courtroom violence. Restraining orders and new laws offer victims a reason to seek relief from the courts.
The cases weren't in the courts before," says Meredith Hofford, director of the Family Violence Project. Through the project, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges helps improve access to courts and court services for victims of domestic violence.
Courtroom security problems follow in the wake of domestic violence. "Court systems that do well in terms of being responsive to victims and giving them access. to the courts are very quickly inundated with numbers. And that's where you get security problems that need to be addressed. If they don't have domestic violence cases, the courts are doing something wrong," Hofford indicates.
In Maine, domestic violence cases that reach the courts receive careful scrutiny. "Domestic violence is a big concern," according to Bill Cade, chief of security services for that state's courts. Checking through the pile of reports on his desk, he points out a description of a recent incident: "People came in for a divorce, got into a yelling, shouting match in the hallway, pushed each other around." Another report in Cade's pile contains a threatening quote from a divorce trial: "I'm going to get that four-eyed maggot in the black robe."
Every court hearing that takes place in Maine has at least one security officer assigned to it. If there is any indication of increased risk, a trial security plan is created. It may call for additional staff, equipment, or other modifications to heighten safety.
Violence in courtrooms threatens lives as well as the operation of the courts, as it has for hundreds of years. The technology has changed - from a ball and chain to detectors that can sense plastic explosives - but the conflict between democratic ideals and practical safeguards is the same. An American Bar Association standard for trial courts, published about 15 years ago, addresses this core issue: "Security should not dominate the judicial process at the expense of such other important objectives as the maintenance of courtroom dignity and the respect for the rights of individuals."
Accessibility and safety
The courthouse functions as both setting and symbol for justice. "More than safety is at stake in the courthouse," maintains Judge Hais. "In symbolic terms, a courthouse is more than just brick and mortar - it's a place where people can have a forum to settle disputes. Implicit in its meaning is that it is a safe place, and it is important to keep it safe."
In the late 1970s, when metal detectors and X-ray machines first were introduced into courthouses, the legal community worried that the open, accessible nature of the courts would be lost. These devices slowed down the traffic into courthouses, but have not stopped people from entering. After more than a decade, their effect on the image of the courts still is a matter of conjecture, not fact. "I don't know of any study indicating that the perceptions of someone entering a screened court facility are any different than when entering an unscreened system," indicates Justice Fred Geiger of the Illinois Appellate Court, 2nd District.
When people enter a courthouse, what they see and feel contributes to their image of the justice system. From the Greek and Roman architecture to black robes and the ritual of court proceedings, the courthouse is synonymous with decorum. This decorum even may reduce the likelihood for some types of defiance. "How many times do you see violence at high Mass in church?," asks Justice Geiger. "If you look historically at the way courts were conducted in the past, you see a lot of grandeur, a lot of symbolism and formality taking place. The pomp and the circumstance tend to psychologically affect you, so you think 'I won't cause a problem here because, obviously, I have to abide by these rules.' "
Decorum is only one element of court security and can not stand alone as a defense against violence. Geiger is chair of an Illinois committee to draft state court security guidelines. He has been through the U.S. marshals' state and local court security training institute and has been involved with court security issues since 1983. In court security seminars he conducts for the Institute for Court Management, he teaches other judges that security equipment, proper management of court security systems, and trained staff are required for a safe courtroom.
Entry screening may be bothersome to some attorneys, but, according to the law, does not infringe on Fourth Amendment rights. Like airport security checks, courthouse screening is viewed as a consensual search. A Federal court ruling on this, McMorris v. Alioto, has been followed in a number of Federal jurisdictions, Geiger notes.
If not managed properly, courtroom searches can lead to problems. "In most courts that I've been in, prosecutors and their witnesses do not have to go through the metal detector," indicates Nancy Hollander, an Albuquerque, N.M., lawyer who also is president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "But every time my witnesses and clients walked in and out, they had to go through it. I've complained to the U.S. Marshals Service and the judges - I'm an officer of the court just like they are."
Such differences in treatment could prejudice jurors, Hollander maintains. "If ajuror gets off at the 11th floor of a Federal court and while walking into the jury room sees the defendant, the defendant's family, and the defendant's lawyer having their belongings rifled through, while the government and its people just flash badges and walk through ... what does that tell a [jury]? It tells the jurors these people are the good guys and these people are the bad guys."
The U.S. marshals do not have a nationwide policy on screening procedures. Sometimes, at district levels, familiarity and convenience may take precedence over the risk of prejudicing a juror. "The general policy is that anyone coming in is screened," explains Bill Demsey, spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service. "But policies would be made by the chief judge of the courthouse. If there are prosecuting attorneys who are known, who are seen day in and day out by the security officers, there might be a local rule that would permit them to sidestep the delays of the search."
Hollander says that, as a defense lawyer, she recognizes the need for courtroom security, but believes it must be handled unobtrusively and evenhandedly. "In some state courts, the guards are visibly armed and visibly uniformed. Whereas in Federal courts, the marshals in the courtroom aren't wearing uniforms - they're very discreet."
A body of case law deals with the conflict between security needs and the risk of prejudicing a jury, points out Paul Rothstein, professor of law, Georgetown University Law Center. As an example, he cites U.S. District Judge Charles Richey's opinion in U.S. v. Rayful Edmond, a case involving the use of an anonymous jury that tried a drug conspiracy case in Washington, D.C. Safety measures proportionate to the security risk are allowed under the law. "Somethings that are suggestive of guilt can be utilized, but the trial judge must be certain of their necessity."
On the continuum of courthouse options, the use of anonymous juries potentially is one of the most prejudicial security precautions. In an anonymous jury, the names, addresses, and occupations of jurors can be kept secret from the government, defendants, counsel for both the prosecution and the defense, and even from one another. This extraordinary measure has been used in organized crime cases. "This is done rarely, and only to protect jurors from the nefarious acts that could be done against them by the defendant," indicates Abraham Abramovsky, a Fordham University law professor and director of the Fordham International Criminal Law Center.
Abramovsky is against the use of anonymous juries. "The presumption of innocence vanishes; the individual [juror] is now, in effect, being told, There is a very dangerous person here in the courtroom of whom you should be wary. " He recommends less extreme measures, such as allowing counsel the knowledge of the jurors' identity, provided they don't discuss the information with their clients or anyone else.
Well-managed security programs are based on the concept of a fair trial in a safe courthouse. This approach is sensitive to the defendant's rights to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. It also protects the justice system's right to safeguard people and process. In Maine, the fair trial/ safe courthouse approach involves judges, attorneys, and security officials. The presiding judge reviews trial security plans, ensuring against the possibility of prejudicing jurors. In pre-trial conferences, security officers discuss both their concerns and options with the defense counsel and the state's attorney. The result is a careful approach, characterized by the use of armed guards in plain clothes, planned routes for defendants that prevent jurors from inadvertently seeing them under custody, and the use of under-the-pants leg braces if restraints are necessary. On occasion, tablecloths have been draped over courtroom tables to hide a defendant's restraints from the eyes of jurors.
Whether a trial involves organized crime figures or a domestic relations conflict, the possibility of courtroom violence can not be ruled out. The pivotal issue is: How much risk is acceptable? The National Sheriffs' Association takes an aggressive stand. "There should be no risk in a courtroom setting. If you find that judges and jurors are threatened, our criminal justice system will break down. We can not tolerate our judges being attacked; we can not tolerate our jurors being intimidated," Meeks insists.
Although courtroom violence is unacceptable, it can't be stopped completely. "You can reduce your risks, but you may not be able to prevent someone from punching someone else in the nose," Justice Geiger explains. "We can't adopt military security standards, so we're always going to be vulnerable. But we can limit that vulnerability."