Daily drama, but no violence, in evidence in suburban courts

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 15, 2012 - 7:49 PM

Hennepin County's 3 divisional courts are at heart of safety debate.

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Angela Edmondson thought it odd there was no screening at the Brookdale District Court in Brooklyn Center. “I wouldn’t care if it [security] was an inconvenience, as long as my safety was at its best.”

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Court was in session Friday morning at the Brookdale branch, ground zero in the debate over weapons screening in Hennepin County's suburban courtrooms.

District Judge Anne McKeig eyed her computer monitor, while a man charged with drunken driving sat quietly next to a Brooklyn Park prosecutor filling out paperwork. A clerk signed documents as a woman stood by, her son fiddling with a Spider-Man action figure. In the gallery, dozens of people awaited their cases to be called. A deputy sprang to action when she spotted a person texting on a cell phone -- a breach of court protocol.

This was the same courtroom a Hennepin County district judge last week refused to return to until weapons screening is implemented, a move that ignited a debate between the veteran judge and court administrators who ultimately reassigned him. It also prompted talks about possible security changes at the three divisional courtrooms known as the "Dales" in Brooklyn Center, Edina and Minnetonka, where attorneys, defendants and court staff mingle, all after entering the buildings unscreened.

At Brookdale, where 818 misdemeanor domestic assault cases were heard last year -- more than the other two divisions combined, young mother Angela Edmondson said she noticed the lack of screening.

"I thought it was a little odd. I wondered if I couldn't bring certain things in, but then I noticed there were no metal detectors," said Edmondson, 22, of Brooklyn Park, who was with her baby daughter. "I wouldn't care if it was an inconvenience, as long as my safety was at its best."

At a courtroom in the Southdale branch in Edina, Michelle Church of Prior Lake said she didn't even think about the weapons screening. "I think everyone just assumes nothing's going to happen," said Church, who was there to take care of a traffic ticket.

The divisional locations are high-traffic areas. In addition to the courtrooms that handle misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases ranging from traffic tickets to domestic assault, each shares a facility with a library and county service center.

A history of violence

A courthouse shooting last month in Grand Marais, Minn., where a defendant opened fire on a prosecutor and witness in an unscreened courthouse, again prompted debate about weapons screening.

By then, Hennepin County District Court had already embarked on a $77,000, four-month study by the National Center for State Courts to determine how to improve security. It should be completed by spring.

In the meantime, Sheriff Richard Stanek has backed Judge Lloyd Zimmerman in his refusal to hear cases at Brookdale, and blasted county commissioners who he says have repeatedly denied his requests for security screening at the suburban courthouses, citing cost, the fact that lower-level crimes are heard there, and that armed deputies are posted in the courtroom. In a letter sent to commissioners after the Grand Marais shooting, he said he was "concerned as ever" about the lack of weapons screening at the three suburban courtrooms.

Stanek and Zimmerman said the domestic violence complaints and cases involving protective orders, often heard at the divisional courthouses, are among the most dangerous, although the office was unable to provide reports of any violent incidents at any of the divisional courthouses.

However, 87 people were arrested on warrants there last year. Since weapons screening was implemented in 2005 at the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis, sheriff's deputies have found or confiscated nine guns and "numerous" sharp objects, spokeswoman Lisa Kiava said.

Changes coming?

County Administrator Richard Johnson confirmed that Stanek and his staff met Thursday to determine if there are any temporary solutions for weapons screening and what long-term security changes would cost in each building. Johnson said Zimmerman's refusal to attend court there influenced the talks.

"He's certainly raised legitimate issues, and we want to explore them as thoroughly as possible and decide what's the best course of action." Johnson said.

That action might be in the works already. On Wednesday, sheriff's deputies at Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka stood on the third floor of the building, shooting photos of areas where weapons screening might be done.

Because of the high number of cases that cycle through the divisional courts each day, it's difficult to take only a snapshot of the atmosphere at them, said Chief Judge James Swenson. What cases are called on a given day is dependent on which of the county's 47 municipalities are represented or whether a probation officer is present. A calendar could morph from traffic cases in the morning to court trials in the afternoon. Domestic cases heard on a given morning could range from zero to dozens.

John Leunig, an attorney who has taken cases at Brookdale for 24 years, said as he left the building Friday that he's never encountered a dangerous situation there or anywhere. Something about the freedom of an open courtroom, he said, makes him reluctant to push for screening. However, he acknowledged that things have changed. The number of cases has jumped while government funding continues to plunge. At the same time, he lauded Zimmerman, whom he called a kind, compassionate and thoughtful judge.

"When a guy like that says he feels the way he feels, it made me think of his concerns just a little bit more," he said.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

  • BY THE NUMBERS 29,639: Number of cases heard at the three divisional courthouses in 2011. 44 percent: Traffic cases 10 percent: DWIs 8 percent: Misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor domestic assaults and other assaults The remainder: Other gross misdemeanors, non-traffic and parking cases Source: Hennepin County District Court
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