Court Security

Court security is hot topic after recent litigation-related attacks


Fatal shootings at or near courthouses, law offices and an elementary school throughout the country in recent weeks and months—as well as a former Los Angeles police officer’s murderous rampage targeted at his attorney and others after what he described as an unfair firing—have focused increased attention on the security of lawyers and litigants.

In addition to renewed debate about the extent to which more gun control and mental health treatment may be needed, observers are wondering about the adequacy of security measures at courthouses and in other places where lawyers and litigants may be targeted.

In Connecticut, a massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown has gotten court officials thinking about arming some of the system’s marshals. the Day reports.

They have not had guns since the judicial branch took over court security in 2000, the newspaper notes. But Judge Patrick L. Carroll III, who serves as the state’s deputy chief court administrator, says the Sandy Hook tragedy, as well as a more recent fatal shooting at a courthouse in Wilmington, Del., has put the issue on the table for consideration.

Even without armed court marshals to prevent them, the last court-related shooting in the state was in 2005, the article notes. A retired state trooper in the middle of a divorce fatally shot his wife and himself, but his wife’s lawyer survived and continued practicing matrimonial law.

In an ideal world, the state’s courthouses would have well-trained, armed marshals or former police officers on duty, Superior Court Judge Kevin P. McMahon told the Day. “Do I think it’s urgent? No. But would we kick ourselves if we didn’t do something and something happened? Yes.”

In Washington state, where a judge was stabbed and a sheriff’s deputy shot at a courthouse without armed guards last year, lawmakers have introduced bills that would make it a felony offense to attack anyone in a courthouse, the Associated Press reports.

“Courthouses by their very nature are dangerous places,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson during testimony last week at the state house of representatives. “We believe all citizens should have equal protection as they access our courts—victims, witnesses, jurors and family members.”

At last report, the suspect accused in the Grays Harbor County Courthouse attack, Steven Kravetz, had been found competent to stand trial for attempted murder in Lewis County Superior Court, according to the Daily World. However, his defense lawyer, David Arcuri, insisted at the same August 2012 hearing that Kravetz wasn’t competent to assist in his own defense, saying that the client, for example, had called his office 27 times in a single day, yet refused to discuss the case.

“Do not force me to work with this man without further mental help,” Arcuri told the judge. “It is impossible right now for me to represent him in his current state.”

At smaller courthouses in semi-rural locations, where security may be minimal at best, additional safeguards also are being taken.

At Montana’s Yellowstone County Courthouse, there are plans to hire a security guard to patrol courthouse halls and check restrooms and elevators before the building is locked for the evening, the Laurel Outlook reports.

At the Doddridge County Courthouse in West Virginia, visitors for the first time went through metal detectors on Tuesday, WDTV reports.

And in North Carolina, court officials in Beaufort are asking Carteret County to amp up security and install metal detectors at the courthouse there, the News-Times reports.

More than 400 acts of violence targeted against courts throughout the country since 2005, and officials are still struggling to implement optimal procedures, often in historic buildings that were not constructed with modern security issues in mind, wrote two experts affiliated with the National Center for State Courts in a recent National Law Journal opinion piece.

Critical to court safety is a strong perimeter with a well-secured entrance, they write, pointing out that even fatal attacks often began and ended at the entrance, before they could escalate further.

The authors also suggest a national registry for such incidents, so that those responsible for court security can learn from what others have, and have not, done.

While good security can prevent an armed individual from entering a courthouse, it is more difficult to protect those outside, or even entering the building, as the recent fatal shootings of two women entering a courthouse in Wilmington, Del., illustrate, a county sheriff for Chester, Pa., tells the Daily Local News.

Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh, who has been in charge of security for the West Chester courthouse since 2000, points to heated family disputes as the likeliest cases to ignite violence. Her court building, which opened in 2008, is conducive to security concerns, with only one public entrance, a small public lobby that provides little room for loitering and a “crow’s nest” set-up in the main lobby which allows her deputies a view from overhead of what is happening at the entrance.

However, “if someone is determined to target someone for violence outside the courthouse, it would almost be impossible to stop that,” she tells the newspaper.

Related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Gun Control Debate Gains Traction as Obama Appoints Task Force in Wake of Conn. School Slayings”

ABAJournal.com: “Locked doors, safety training and remote car starters go a long way to protect lawyers, expert says”

ABAJournal.com: “Woman shot in face outside court, suspect shoots at police during chase”

ABAJournal.com: “Reports: Driver’s license of fugitive ex-cop accused in slayings is found with body in burned cabin”

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