Today’s courthouse shooting in Delaware is a grim reminder that courthouse violence is on the rise. Attorney General Bob Ferguson is working with lawmakers to help him extend protections to all who access our justice system.
“All citizens should feel safe and have equal protections when they access our courts—victims and defendants, witnesses and jurors alike,” Ferguson said. “I am joining lawmakers from both parties to request increased penalties for violence in and around our judicial buildings.”
According to the Center for Judicial and Executive Security (CJES), the number of acts of courtroom violence nationwide per year have increased four-fold since the 1970s. A 2011 CJES report, “Disorder in the Courts,” chronicled 50 incidences of violence nationally in 2010 and 67 more in 2011—for a combined two-year total higher than any previous decade.
Washington is no exception to court violence. Last March, a man stabbed and shot a sheriff’s deputy at the Grays Harbor County Courthouse in Montesano before stabbing a judge who came to her aid. Earlier this year, a man assaulted a plainclothes detective in a Kent Courthouse after the detective asked him to stop intimidating witnesses. The assailant claimed he did not know he was assaulting a detective. He just thought he was attacking “some guy in a suit.”
SB 5484 and HB 1653 extend protections passed in 2011 to all visitors to Washington courthouses. The bill:
• Increases the penalty for misdemeanor assault in and around a courthouse to a felony – regardless of the victim; and
• Makes a committing a felony in and around a courthouse – regardless of the victim – an aggravating factor for a judge to consider during sentencing.
The measure is sponsored by a bi-partisan list of legislative leaders in both the House and the Senate, and it is garnering wide support from law enforcement, prosecutors and victims’ advocates alike.
“Courthouses by their very nature attract controversy—and angry, disgruntled and desperate people often resort to violence when faced with this controversy,” said Adam Kline, D-Seattle, prime sponsor of SB 5484 and ranking member of the Senate Law & Justice Committee. “People should feel safe when they enter the halls of justice—and not just because they are a judge or a court worker.”
“Statistics prove that the most dangerous and deadly period in a domestic violence relationship is when a victim tries to leave,” said Trese Todd of Thrivers Action Group, a group of domestic violence survivors who advocate for change. “Domestic abuse is tragic - but stalking after separation adds an element of trauma/terror that few can imagine. Many survivors literally disappear from friends and family forever. In fact, a court appearance may be the one and only place where an unhinged individual could find and confront a former victim. Domestic violence survivors are more sensitive to safety, and frequently interact with the judicial system. Obviously, a safe courthouse is critical.”
Carissa Daniels, a domestic violence survivor speaking under a pseudonym, agrees.
“As a survivor of domestic violence, every time I go to the courthouse, I am dealing with a huge amount of stress,” Daniels said. “It's not just dealing with the system that is frightening. It’s the knowledge that my abusive ex has the right to be there, and that if he shows up, I will be engaging in a game of Russian roulette. I never know if today will be the time he will go off. I need to know that the courts take his threats and his history of violence seriously, that law enforcement will do what is necessary to protect me, and will deal with any assaults or violations of the law immediately and decisively. Not taking the threat of violence seriously endangers everyone in the courthouse.”
HB 1653, sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens, and others is scheduled for a hearing before the House Public Safety Committee at 8 a.m. on Feb. 12 in House Hearing Room D of the John L. O’Brien Building .
“As Chair of the Public Safety Committee, I understand the need for witnesses, victims, defendants and their families to be protected in our courthouses,” Goodman said. “This bill makes it clear that violence in our courthouses will not be tolerated.”
“Working in law enforcement, I’ve seen firsthand the tension and frustration some people feel when accessing our justice system,” said Hope, a 14-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department. “This bill will send a message that no matter how upset one might be, violence is not acceptable in our courthouses.”
SB 5484, sponsored by Kline, Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, and others will be heard by the Senate Law and Justice Committee at 8 a.m. on Feb. 15 in Senate Hearing Room 2 of the John A. Cherberg Building.
“Victims, witnesses and jurors already often find courthouses intimidating,” said Padden, who served 12 years as a district court judge in Spokane before returning to the Legislature and who now chairs the Senate Law & Justice Committee. “They should know that anyone who tries to harm them will be held accountable.”