A courthouse, epicenter for administering justice, should be a sanctuary from violence. As prosecutors, social workers and court staff understand viscerally, however, courthouses are routine backdrops for the belligerent and the deranged. Sanctuary from evil is a goal, not a promise.
In March 2012, a man stabbed a Grays Harbor County Superior Court Judge in Montesano and shot and stabbed a Sheriff’s Deputy. Last month, a suspect clocked a detective in a Kent Courthouse because the detective demanded he stop intimidating witnesses. The assailant said he didn’t realize that his victim was a plainclothes detective (read: he knew his punishment would be harsher for slugging a cop.)
Acts of courtroom violence have quadrupled since the 1970s, according to the Center for Judicial and Executive Security. This decade is already a record breaker, with 50 documented incidents of violence in 2010 and 67 in 2011.
Raw emotions flow from custody and divorce hearings, the kind of discord that kindles violence. In criminal cases, there are victims, witnesses, families of the accused, rival gang members, an intersection of unfriendlies.
In response to swelling courtroom violence, the Washington Legislature in 2011 passed House Bill 1794, a law that ratchets up penalties from a misdemeanor to a felony for those charged with assaulting a judicial officer or other employee performing his or her official duties. The law, adopted unanimously in both chambers, built upon a previous measure that upped penalties for assaulting prison guards and law enforcement officers. The next step is self-evident, ensuring that all citizens are extended equal justice and protection when they enter a courthouse.
Request legislation from Washington’s new Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, will accomplish just that.
Senate Bill 5484 and House Bill 1653 will boost the penalty for misdemeanor assault in and around a courthouse to a felony, regardless of the victim. It also makes committing a felony around a courthouse an aggravating factor for a judge to weigh during sentencing. Rep. Luis Moscoso, a Democrat, and Rep. Mike Hope, a Republican, are House co-sponsors from the Snohomish County delegation.
“All citizens should feel safe and have equal protections when they access our courts — victims and defendants, witnesses and jurors alike,” Ferguson said. “I’m joining lawmakers from both parties to request increased penalties for violence in and around our judicial buildings.”
For years, all victims of courthouse crime were equal, but some victims were more equal than others. That will change in 2013, if lawmakers act.