Judge is right: Suburban courts aren't safe

  • Article by: SUE LANTTO
  • Updated: January 9, 2012 - 9:11 PM

Those of us who work in them know that the safety concerns raised by Judge Lloyd Zimmerman are warranted.

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I am an advocate for victims of domestic violence. For the last three years, I have attended the Brookdale and Ridgedale courts in that capacity.

I applaud Hennepin County District Judge Lloyd Zimmerman for raising awareness of the safety concerns at Brookdale and other suburban courts. Many others who work at these courts share these concerns.

It is true that felony charges are not addressed at the suburban courts; only misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors are seen there. However, it is very common that defendants have prior felony convictions, and some have prior felony weapons convictions.

It is not unusual to have more than 100 cases on the calendar for a single morning session at Brookdale. Frustrations and tempers run high.

I have seen defendants swear at judges. I have seen defendants run through courtrooms and lobbies in an attempt to escape justice. I have seen defendants taken into custody for defying court orders and for contempt of court.

The goal at all Hennepin County courtrooms is to have armed deputies present at all times. However, when there are disturbances in other areas of the buildings, those deputies must respond.

For example, on Friday at Brookdale, there was a disturbance in one courtroom that required the presence of several deputies, severely limiting the ability of the deputies to provide coverage in all areas.

It is not unusual to have no deputy present in the courtroom when cases are called.

Domestic-violence cases are not like other criminal cases. These are crimes of violence, with specific victims, involving ongoing relationships.

Many victims are more fearful of losing what little control they have over their lives than they are of an occasional violent episode. Many defendants believe that they have done nothing wrong and are now being placed in a position where they may lose their jobs, families and reputations.

It is also common that both the defendant and the victim are present at court. As you can imagine, these situations can become volatile.

Often, orders for protection, restraining orders and even divorce papers are served on defendants at court.

Domestic-violence cases are inherently about power and control. Yet often both defendant and victim are in attendance at court in a situation where they hold little sway over the outcome.

In Minnesota, a victim does not have the choice to press or dismiss charges. Charges can be, and often are, placed over their objections.

The court can (and often does) make it an additional crime for the defendant to have any kind of contact with the victim, sometimes over the objections of both the defendant and the victim.

There are valid reasons a judge may do this, but it can increase the stress and frustration of both parties.

Installing metal detectors or some type of weapons screening at the suburban courts seems like an obvious answer, albeit an expensive one. I have also heard the suggestion that the domestics be moved downtown.

This would present a challenge for the many defendants and victims who do not have transportation. It would also increase costs for the cities, as prosecutors would have to appear at both courthouses.

One option that I think has possibilities is to consolidate all the domestic-assault cases into two court calendars per week. (Many domestic cases are violations of court orders involving nonviolent contact with a protected party. These cases could stay on the regular calendars.)

Increasing law enforcement presence in the courtroom on these days would help to limit the potential for emotional outbursts.

Currently, if a suspect is not arrested for an assault, the initial court date can be as much as four months after the assault. This proposal would allow for domestic-assault cases to be heard in a more timely manner.

It would also serve to insulate citizens involved in other cases, and would allow the sheriff's office to increase deputy staffing and courtroom presence on those two days and not on the others.

There would be increased costs in law enforcement staffing and in city prosecutors' appearances, but this may be substantially less than weapons screening.

I understand Zimmerman's safety concerns. Most of us who work at the courthouse have had moments when we were frightened.

I am grateful that the judge has made his voice heard on behalf of all of us.

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Sue Lantto lives in Chanhassen.

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