A review of security at Hennepin County's downtown and suburban courts recommends a five-year, $14 million overhaul that includes closing the Southdale courthouse in Edina.
It also recommends moving several high-traffic divisions such as the Violations Bureau behind weapons screening areas in the bustling downtown Government Center.
While the suggestions alleviate security concerns, they raise questions about accessibility and congestion from consolidating the thousands of cases from Southdale, the busiest of the three suburban courthouses, to Brookdale and Ridgedale.
"People with speeding tickets don't want to drive downtown to pay 20 bucks for parking to talk about a speeding ticket," said Bloomington City Attorney Sandra Johnson, whose office alone handles 15,000 cases a year ranging from domestic violence to drunken driving, mostly at Southdale.
At the Government Center downtown, the changes can't come soon enough for County Court Administrator Mark Thompson. Now, he said, about 700 people a day go through areas recommended for screening, hoping to have their problems solved.
"Many of them leave very angry and we have no idea who's coming through the door," he said Monday.
County Administrator Richard Johnson sent a memo summarizing the report to the Board of Commissioners earlier this month. If the board approves the changes, they'll begin to take place in 2014. The 100-plus page report was not made public.
Too much overflow?
New attention was focused on court security in January after a shooting at a courthouse in Grand Marais, Minn., and when a Hennepin County district judge refused to hear any more cases at suburban courtrooms until visitors were screened for weapons. Walk-through metal detectors were then installed in the suburbs last spring.
The review recommends installing permanent weapons screening in the county's suburban courthouses at Brookdale in Brooklyn Center and Ridgedale in Minnetonka at a cost of $170,000. Because it would cost an estimated $870,000 to install screening at the aging and cramped Southdale, the memo suggests closing the courthouse and moving its cases to the two other suburban facilities.
It's a decision met with enthusiasm and trepidation by court officials, who say the screening is necessary, but will need to be creative to relocate the high volume of people who use Southdale. Sandra Johnson said it may not be realistic to consolidate that traffic into the other two suburban courthouses.
"If you look at them physically, I don't think they can handle the number of people that come into court on those cases," she said. "Even now, during peak periods, there's no place to sit or talk to victims."
Still, she said delaying changes until 2014 gives the county and cities "a lot of time to talk about what makes sense."
Hennepin County's suburban courts hear no felony cases among the more than 50,000 cases assigned there every year. Typical cases include low-level assaults, domestics, DWIs and traffic and parking violations.
Despite the focus on the suburban courthouses, the study also recommended major changes for the Government Center, including moving the Violations Bureau, Fines Management Office, Conciliation Court and the Self-Help Service Center behind the current weapons screening stations, which have been in place since 2005. Now, each of the offices see an estimated 136,000 people each year, none of them screened.
Thompson said the move won't be easy. The offices, which are in City Hall and the first and second levels of the Government Center, will need to be moved into each of the Government Center's two towers, moves that will have to take place "as logically as possible and in a chess-like fashion," he said.
Sheriff Rich Stanek said his office is on board to help with the task. In the seven months since weapons screening was implemented at the suburban courthouses alone, deputies seized more than 900 banned items, including box cutters and scissors.
"We don't want to go back in time," he said.
At the Hearing and Fines Management Office on the first level of the Government Center, Mary Joyce of St. Paul waited with her teenage son Will to speak with a hearing officer about a traffic ticket on Monday. She said she was ambivalent about additional screening.
"I just wish things were a little more free, still," she said. "But I guess of all places in the city, this would be the most important place to do it."
Thomas Marzette, who was waiting for a friend at the Government Center, said he always feels safe there but understands the need for security for criminal cases. "But tickets? That's just an extra hassle, extra money spent that we could use somewhere else."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921