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Police and governors deserve no extra footing in courthouses

Jun 07, 2012 Police and governors deserve no extra footing in courthouses

For the first time practicing criminal defense, I recognized that a courthouse had a picture of the governor, and his lieutenant at the entrance. Maybe I have been oblivious in not recognizing this before. Maybe it is common. Maybe I am too wrapped up in my clients’ cases that take me to court to have paid enough attention to this antithesis of separation of powers. Maybe I have become so numbed to breaches of good sense in government that it took a visit to the courthouse without needing my client’s presence for a simple hearing, to notice this photo rather than being wrapped up in conversation with my client.

This particular courthouse is the District Courthouse in Rockville, Montgomery County, Maryland. It surely a multi-, multi-million dollar new courthouse, very modern looking from the outside, with a two-story atrium, but, sadly, with windowless courtrooms.

Of course, displays of governors are not the worst breach of separation of powers that one sees in a courthouse. In the state-level courthouses where I practice, police repeatedly are permitted to walk inside with their full panoply of weapons, including handguns, tasers, and "defensive" batons, carrying them openly and notoriously and bypassing the metal detectors that the non-lawyers and non-police must pass through (and lawyers also must go through metal detectors in most non-Maryland courthouses where I practice). The courthouses already have security personnel. Everyone but the courthouse security personnel should be required to check their weapons at the door.

What message is sent to jurors and judges who see fully-armed police in courthouses that often do not even allow non-lawyers (and sometimes do not even allow lawyers) to bring in a cellphone (clearly cellphones are not weapons)? The message is to trust these armed folks who are not part of the judicial branch, despite the usual criminal jury instruction to neither give more nor less credence to a police officer merely because they sport a badge.

Look at any trial courtroom where I practice, and who is handling security? Not a security force run by the judicial branch of government nor by a private security firm, but law enforcement officers from the executive branch of government. Worse, in the Virginia counties that have sheriffs as the only police force, jurors see deputy sheriffs testifying in criminal trials simultaneous to seeing their brother and sister deputies serving as courtroom security personnel, wearing the very same uniforms. What message does that send to jurors? Answer: Trust the deputies. Are any judges in such circumstances more willing to cut a testifying sheriff’s deputy more slack (e.g., not berating a runaway testifying sheriff’s deputy, not verbalizing doubt about the deputies’ credibility and/or professionalism, or putting up with such a witness’s being inexcusably late to testify at a trial) lest their brother and sister deputies securing the courtroom let their guards down in retaliation for a judge’s firmness with one of their colleagues?

The battles to fight to obtain more justice are infinite. The problems I have raised above are decades-entrenched, and, with courthouse security, will be very expensive in time and money to overhaul. Such changes must be made, nevertheless.

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