A review of 2012 courthouse security data reports shows lawyers and judges sometimes in the crosshairs: A criminal defendant punched his defense lawyer in the face, a man threatened to shoot counsel and deputies arrested two attorneys for bringing guns into the courthouse.
Since 2008, the Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA) has required Texas counties to submit courthouse security data. It’s clear from the fiscal year 2012 data that most security incidents occur in state district courts, and many are connected to criminal and family law cases. Although physical assaults do occur, security incidents more commonly involve disorderly behavior, taking a weapon into a courthouse or threats.
When asked how frequently security incidents affect lawyers, John Ovard, presiding judge of the 1st Administrative Judicial Region in Dallas, replies, “I’ve seen lawyers actually have to be broken up by the bailiff, pushing or shoving or hitting.”
Ovard continues, “I’ve seen lawyers stop and help the bailiff stop a defendant. . . . The prosecutor, the defense attorney and the bailiff keeping [the defendants] from doing something.”
Dallas solo Diana Friedman, who has practiced family law since 1991, says she’s helped prevent fights in her own cases.
“Usually it’s the lawyers who step in. . . . I say, ‘Come on, come with me,’ take them down the hall, away from the other side,” says Friedman, chairwoman of the State Bar of Texas Family Law Section.
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg says she takes steps to protect her assistant DAs, explaining, “If there’s trouble on a case, if someone is threatening a party or something like that, we will have investigators escort the lawyers to court and stay with them.”
DA investigators are commissioned peace officers who may carry weapons into courthouses.
The most recent complete OCA datasetis from fiscal year 2012, which runs from Sept. 1, 2011, to Aug. 31, 2012. In fiscal year 2012, there were 130 incidents, compared to 185 in fiscal year 2011; it’s a decrease of 29.7 percent.
Every year from 2008 to 2012, the largest numbers of incidents occurred in district courts. In 2012, district courts accounted for 56 incidents, followed by municipal courts with 33 and county-level courts with 20 incidents.
A large number of incidents occur in criminal and family law cases, but many incidents aren’t linked to a case. In 2012, 62 incidents were linked to criminal cases, 40 incidents weren’t linked to a particular case, and 16 incidents were connected to family law cases.
Starting in 2010, reports began noting the type of behavior involved in an incident: physical assault, disorderly behavior, threats, taking a weapon to the courthouse, etc. Some incidents involve multiple behaviors.
In each fiscal year from 2010 to 2012, “disorderly behavior” was most common. In 2012, there were 56 reports of disorderly behavior, 33 reports of taking a weapon into the courthouse and 25 reports of threats.
Out of the 130 incidents reported in 2012, 22 incidents resulted in injury. The numbers of injuries stay fairly constant, ranging from 21 to 26 for each of the five years the state has collected the data.
Rob Hofmann, associate judge of Child Protection Court of the Hill Country, says in 2006 he served on a courthouse security committee of the Texas Judicial Council, the judiciary’s policymaking body. The committee first recommended that Texas counties report security incidents to OCA.
“[T]here may not be very good reporting,” Hofmann says, because judges may not know they are supposed to report incidents; they may not be aware of all incidents; they may forget to report incidents; or they may think an incident is “not a big enough deal” to report.
The data backs up Hofmann’s hypothesis that the OCA data isn’t complete. For example, Harris County, one of the state’s most populous counties, only reported one security incident in fiscal year 2012.
“That’s a reporting anomaly we are trying to correct,” says Major Debra Schmidt, criminal justice bureau commander of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, who supervises court security in 85 courtrooms.
“Somewhere in the courthouse complex with those 85 courts, I can almost guarantee you something happens every day. It runs that gamut from, ‘You need to sit down and be quiet,’ to: We call in an emergency response team to regain the order in the court,” Schmidt says, noting she’s working with the county’s Administrative Office of the District Courts to accurately report all incidents in 2013.
District Courts Administrator Clay Bowman didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment.
The sole courthouse fatality of 2012 happened on March 14 as the result of a shooting at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Beaumont. [See "Inadmissible," Texas Lawyer, March 19, 2012, page 3.]
Serious incidents like that one are rare. Physical assaults were only reported in 23 of the 130 incidents of 2012.
But only one of those assaults involved a lawyer. On June 4, a criminal defendant in Dallas County Court-at-Law No. 5 assaulted an attorney and a deputy sheriff. According to Incident Report No. 839, the criminal defendant was “placed in the vestibule in handcuffs to speak with his attorney. While in there, he assaulted his attorney by striking the attorney in the face with his hands.” The deputy arrested the defendant and put him in a holding cell, removed the handcuffs, and, “At that point he struck [the deputy] in the face with his closed fist.” The lawyer, Jason McLemore, and the deputy both had contusions under an eye because of the assaults.
McLemore didn’t return two telephone calls seeking comment.
The data shows that “disorderly behavior” is much more likely to happen in a security incident than a physical assault. Many of those reports involve parties in cases who become upset and lash out verbally.
For example, a criminal defendant in Fort Worth Municipal Court on Nov. 21, 2011, “was unhappy” with a judge’s decision and told the judge, “[Y]ou can go to hell,” according to Incident ReportNo. 770.
An unusual “disorderly behavior” report happened on Nov. 22, 2011. A man entered the George Allen Courthouse in Dallas and he “sprayed a smelly spray in the hallway. . . . The name of the substance was Liquid Ass,” says Incident Report No. 771.
Weapons and Threats
Per the OCA data, the second most commonly reported behavior is taking a weapon to the courthouse.
“We hope the door process is the first line of defense, and we hope it works, so if we have emotions running high up in the courtrooms, at least we are fairly confident the parties are not armed,” says Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Terry Grisham. Sheriff’s offices provide courthouse security in most Texas counties. Grisham warns lawyers who have concealed handgun licenses to leave their guns in the car.
“Next to jurors, we probably arrest more lawyers for bringing weapons to the courthouse than anybody. It’s not uncommon for lawyers to travel with a handgun in their briefcase,” says Grisham.
In 2012, two gun-toting lawyers were arrested in Bexar County for bringing weapons to the courthouse. On Oct. 7, 2011, an attorney at the Cadena Reeves Justice Center in Bexar County “was carrying the handgun and 2 full magazines in his bag which was discovered when he placed it in the x-ray machine,” says Incident ReportNo. 747. Then on May 3, officers arrested a lawyer who “had the firearm in his satchel and forgot about it until it was discovered by door monitors,” according to Incident Report No. 832.
Sometimes people take unconventional weapons into courthouses. On Jan. 4, a person entered the Collin County Court Facility with “a metallic object that was similar to brass knuckles in shape of bat wings that were beveled knife edges,” according to Incident Report No. 784. There were 10 reports of people bringing “brass knuckles” to court and two incidents involving “throwing stars.”
Sometimes, Grisham says, litigants transform ordinary objects into weapons. He explains, “I’ve seen water pitchers turn into missiles and fly across courtrooms, and law books turned into Frisbees.”
The third most commonly reported behavior in 2012 was threats. Sometimes, lawyers and judges are the targets.
For example, on Jan. 24, lawyer Meredith Ladd provided a statement about a threat, recorded in Incident Report No. 793. Ladd wrote that she called the name of a criminal defendant, and, “I asked him if he would like to speak to me, and he stated ‘I would really like to shoot you.’ I responded, ‘Well, then, I guess I won’t talk to you.’ “
Ladd declines comment. But she noted in her statement, “I was shocked and offended that he said this.”
On one occasion on Aug. 15, a criminal-defense lawyer reported that one of his clients, “made threats against the staff of County Court #4 including Judge Sandy Bielstein,” says Incident Report No. 866.
Bielstein, judge of Fort Bend County Court-at-Law No. 4, didn’t return two telephone calls seeking comment.
High numbers of incidents occur in criminal and family law cases.
Ovard, a judge of 32 years, says district courts hear felony criminal cases, which have higher “emotional impacts” than in the misdemeanor criminal cases in county-level courts.
“Felony cases, you can get the death sentence or any number of years, up to 99 or life,” says Ovard.
He also notes that district courts hear all family law cases, and he says, “[T]he emotional levels are actually higher than in criminal cases, generally speaking.”
In criminal cases, a criminal defendant or an audience member may cause a security incident.
For example, Incident Report No. 797 noted that, during a proceeding in Montgomery County Sanctions Court on Feb. 9, a judge ordered a woman into custody for violating probation. The woman “became very upset . . . and copped [an] attitude.” A deputy “placed her in cuffs” but she “yanked her arm out of my grip” and quickly started towards the door.
The deputy reported, “I chose to use her momentum and guide her to the wall just to the left of the door. . . . She was not pushed or slammed.” The woman’s husband and mother-in-law were “screaming and cursing” at the deputy, and the husband “in his anger went and pounded on a wall with both closed fists.” Deputies arrested the husband but allowed the mother-in-law to leave the courthouse with the couple’s child.
Highly emotional family law cases also spawn security incidents.
In one case, a woman and her 9-month-old son attended a Child Protective Servicescase on Aug. 6 in Dallas County’s 305th District Court. Incident ReportNo. 860 says the court found the woman “suffered from a mental disorder” and didn’t have the means to care for her son.
“The judge then ordered the immediate removal of [the woman's] son and ordered him placed in C.P.S. care. [The woman] began hysterically screaming, crying, and banging on the walls and stated that she refused to surrender her son.” But after bailiffs talked with the woman, she calmed down and “eventually agreed to surrender her son,” the report says.
Friedman, who has practiced family law since 1991, says she thinks family law cases create security incidents because, “It’s the marriage relationship. It’s their children. It’s all of their assets. People tend to get very emotional about that. . . . Even the most healthy people . . . havea very difficult time going through a divorce, and the people who are not wired together too good just fall apart completely.”
Andy Hathcock, an associate judge in Travis County’s civil district courts who hears family law cases almost exclusively, says, “There’s an old adage that, in criminal court, you have a lot of bad people, but they are on their best behavior. In family court, you have generally good people, but they are on their worst behavior.”
Hathcock says clients or opposing parties frequently yell at or threaten lawyers, and adds, “In some ways, the lawyers are more at risk than judges, because they don’t have the benefits of all the security we have.”
Friedman says she’s asked bailiffs to walk with her to her car after emotional hearings, because the opposing party “may be waiting for you downstairs or in the parking garage.”
When asked if she ever fears for her safety, Friedman replies, “I don’t think you can practice law scared, but there’s times you also need to be smart. There’s been times I’m extra careful and really pay attention to who is around me.”
Hofmann, whose jurisdiction includes 12 counties, says associate judges of child protection and child support courts are “vulnerable” to security incidents because they travel to work in small counties that have less funding for security. Often, Hofmann works without a bailiff.
He says he feels secure in court but feels vulnerable when he leaves work.
“I’ve been more afraid for the safety of my family or someone getting retribution. Not getting out of control in the courtroom . . . but going on and planning something else,” Hofmann says.
He notes that Texas law allows judges with concealed handgun licenses to take their guns into courthouses. Hofmann says, “I have my concealed handgun license, and I have my concealed handgun with me.”