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Counties get funds for courtroom safety

May 16, 1999|By BRYN MICKLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties will receive almost $180,000 in state money to help resolve long-standing courthouse security issues, according to West Virginia Court Security Board Chairman James M. Albert.

"We're not reacting to a tremendous problem," Albert said. "We're trying to stay ahead of the curve."

The issue of courtroom security drew statewide attention earlier this year when Morgan County Magistrate Bonnie Riffle told police she was attacked by two men Feb. 16 while she was working late in her office.

A subsequent police investigation resulted in criminal charges that Riffle made up the story in an attempt to collect workers' compensation. Riffle has denied the charges and has been suspended from the bench pending the outcome of her trial set to begin Aug. 3.

The situation surrounding Riffle was discussed during grant talks, but Albert said it was not a factor in any monetary decisions. The state Court Security Board is in its third year of providing money for security, Albert said.

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Berkeley County Circuit Court Judge David Sanders, however, said there are security concerns regardless of Riffle's claim.

"Anytime you have a single, female magistrate working at night or on call in an unlocked building in a darkened neighborhood, there are still valid concerns that need to be addressed," Sanders said.

A $22,993 state grant will be used to fund a $13,000 project to install panic buttons and closed-circuit cameras in the Berkeley County magistrate offices at 120 W. John Street, said Berkeley County Commission President D. Wayne Dunham.

Magistrates could use the cameras to see who is outside late at night and could use the panic buttons to summon police in an emergency, he said.

"Even if the (Riffle) incident in Berkeley Springs didn't happen, there would still be a need for this," Dunham said. "Courts have a lot of unusual situations with people who may be aggravated."

Jefferson County received $66,185 of its original request for about $237,000 to implement security measures at its new judicial center, Jefferson County Commissioner Jim Knode said.

Plans include bullet-resistant panels and windows, panic buttons, X-ray scanners and closed-circuit cameras.

Morgan County received the biggest grant in the state, with $90,000 for security measures.

The Morgan County Courthouse already has panic buttons in place, but Albert said the grant money would be used for structural modifications to increase the safety of the building.

Morgan County officials could not be reached for comment.

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