Attorneys ask for different courthouse security approach
BY JESSICA PRIEST - JPRIEST@VICAD.COM
Aug. 20, 2012 at 3:20 a.m.
Updated Aug. 21, 2012 at 3:21 a.m.
From Sept. 1, 2010, to Aug. 31, 2011, the state of Texas' Office of Court Administration recorded 184 security incidents, defined as anything that threatens a person or property and disrupts court proceedings. At county-level courts, there were five physical assaults and 10 disorderly behaviors. The study didn't say whether they occurred when weapons entered courtrooms undetected.
When the line swells inside the Victoria County Courthouse on long docket days, that's when the eyes roll and the sighs begin.
In what some say is a lot like airport security, deputies insist potential jurors, lawyers and anyone else who wants to step foot inside the Victoria County Courthouse kick off those steel-toed boots, unclasp that watch and fish out that cellphone first.
The district attorney and his assistants are exempt from the security scans.
It's an inconvenience officials say may foil incidents of violence in a place where emotions run high, such as in Jefferson County, where Bartholomew Granger is charged with gunning down a family member and wounding four others in March.
But the Victoria County Bar Association maintains there can be a happy medium, especially since attorneys representing the indigent rack up fees while standing in line.
The group recently sent County Judge Don Pozzi and Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor a letter suggesting its members use a badge to circumvent screenings.
They suggested O'Connor could run background checks on applicants and have veto power for the badges.
Recognizing the commissioners court has likely been bogged down with the 2013 budget, the bar association will present the letter to the court in a month, said Luther Easley, bar association treasurer.
"We're not being critical of the sheriff's office or the judge," he said, noting attorneys sometimes tote file boxes. "This is just a standard that's been allowed in other communities."
Conroe is one such place. To avoid being scanned by one of its five metal detectors, attorneys can purchase a picture ID and renew it annually, said Sgt. Stephen Johnson with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office.
Lawyers in Jefferson County also have been extended a similar courtesy since 2008. Badges cost $50 and forms are available online or through the local bar.
Victoria County Chief Deputy Terry Simons said those counties are "rolling the dice."
"It's a political decision," he said. "They've decided it's worth the risk. For me, as a citizen and not as cop, it smells of privilege, and I don't understand why you'd extend special privilege to anyone."
Safety policies vary in neighboring counties. In Calhoun County, no one avoids the metal detector, Sheriff B.B. Browning said.
At the Wharton County courthouse, attorneys and employees who are known to the security detail are allowed to skip the security check unless there's a high profile case, Jail Administrator Raymond Jansky said.
In Jefferson County, police said Granger retrieved a gun from his car during a break.
"There could always be something," O'Connor said. "Someone could drive their truck through there."
County commissioners put the sheriff in charge of courthouse security, and Pozzi said he won't second guess him.
To help ease the bottle neck at the security stand, O'Connor has ordered a second metal detector for employees and those with their bar association card.
The existing security station would be other visitors.
Both metal detectors will share a baggage claim-like device in the middle.
The new detector is expected to be installed in about two weeks.
"I'm not calling this preferential treatment," O'Connor said, but county employees and attorneys should be in place so residents can complete tasks once inside.
Bar association president Amanda Pierce said the group's plan would save money and possibly generate more revenue for the county
Justice courts, county courts, and district courts levy $5 security fees on certain cases, which raise about $45,000 to $47,000 annually for the courthouse security.
That fund is at $12,744, County Auditor Judy McAdams said.
O'Connor said he'll be open-minded, but safety will always take precedence.
"The minute it goes sour, the minute it goes south they'll forget about that convenience issue and they'll point at us," he said of how the sheriff's office could be sued.
Bailiffs are trained in dealing with an anxious suspect, an active shooter situation and a prisoner transport, he said.
"The bottom line is they can trust us as the experts in the subject matter or not, and, if not, I'm sure there's other means called an election that can change it," O'Connor said.
Local criminal attorney George Filley thinks that's what it'll boil down to.
He calls the current security policies "arbitrary" and "asinine," and said his 40 years of experience should be enough to get him through the door without being "strip searched."
"There's just no rhyme or reason to it," Filley said.
John W. Griffin Jr., a local civil attorney who tries cases as far away as Wyoming, said Victoria County's courthouse is among the safest in the nation, but remains optimistic he'll one day get to bypass security much like he's able to at Houston airports with the $99 global card he applied for earlier this year.
"Attorneys should not be free of scrutiny, but we certainly shouldn't be treated any more severe than perfect strangers," he said.