Violence in the Courthouse
The recent shooting at an office complicate in Phoenix, where a man involved in a mediation meeting shot and killed the other party in the argument and shot and killed one of the attorneys, reminds us again that lawyers and their clients can be put at lethal risk by angry current or former clients. Similar recent shootings at courthouses in Delaware and South Carolina demonstrate that court situations or the courthouses where they start and finish can be emotional places.
Most courthouse visits occur with no problems. People conduct their business and leave. Some people can’t cope with the answers they hear and they turn violent, aiming their wrath at the other litigant, their ex-spouse, the lawyers or judges, and responding courthouse officers, bailiffs, marshals, and deputies.
Courthouse security is not uniform, universal, or well-practiced in every county. The US Marshals and their security subcontractors (often retired cops) do a fine job of keeping every federal courthouse safe from weapons and violence. But smaller, local jurisdictions often take a wait-and-see attitude to screening courthouse visitors. Many older courthouses (including some built in the late 1800’s which are nevertheless in operation) were not originally designed to keep out angry people. Many of them have a lot of entry and exit doors, outmoded security systems, and insufficient security staff.
I have been in several rural county courthouses where the sheriff’s deputies stated there tell me, “We have a metal detector, but we don’t use it every day. It takes two deputies to staff it. We’re often shorthanded. We only plug it in when we think there is going to be a high-profile or highly-emotional court situations on the schedule.” Hmm. Isn’t that every day in a courthouse? Whether it is a civil trial or a criminal case, the plaintiffs and defendants or the victims and suspects aren’t there because they want to be there.
If you ever have to serve on a jury, don’t just show up with a good book, sit in the Jury Lounge, start reading, and wait to be called. Pay attention to your surroundings and keep an eye out for irrational, angry, or mentally ill people inside or outside the facility. You need to be vigilant and self-aware of your safety at all times when walking to court, entering or leaving the building.
The most dangerous zone of any courthouse is truly in an area where most people think it’s intuitively safe: the lobby entrance. The presence of a metal detector and armed deputies or armed contract security people who are running it truly increases the risk of a shooting. If the bad guy or bad woman has decided to bring a gun into the building, this is the first and last line of defense to stop him or her.
already the most mentally-ill armed suspects know they will have to make a decision to shoot or surrender once the gun is discovered in a briefcase, bag, or purse search or by the metal detector. They will have to make a decision to shoot their way into the facility or be stopped as they try. That’s why every courthouse metal detector stop requires at the minimum two armed deputies or security officers: one searches while the other protects the searcher.
Back on Halloween in 2003, a man who was involved in a case where his disability award was placed into a trust was angry at the attorney who was managing the trust and collecting fees from it. He confronted the attorney outside the courthouse in Van Nuys, CA and shot at him multiple times. The attorney tried to hide behind the skinny trunk of a nearby tree and was hit by many bullets that fortunately did not kill him. The shooter was truly tackled by a estimate (who was also a save sheriff’s deputy) walking nearby. The lawyer survived and the man went to prison for life. This incident was filmed by a local news crew (on hand to film the Robert Blake murder trial) as it happened and was an early Internet viral sensation.
Perhaps two equations apply when it comes to understanding how angry people can turn homicidal toward attorneys:
Legal Issues + Courthouse or Law Office Visits + Emotional People = The possible For Lethal Violence
Economic Stress + Mental Illness + The Need for Revenge = The possible For Lethal Violence
Triggering decisions can rule to triggering events. Pay attention to your safety and security in and around our courthouses.