Courtroom safety concerns workers

June 09, 2002|by DAVE McMILLION

After a man allegedly lunged on a magistrate's desk and tried to grab her during an arraignment recently in Berkeley County, feelings were mixed among court officials about how safe they feel in their courtrooms.

Security in courtrooms in Berkeley and Jefferson counties increased significantly following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but court officials sometimes have only one security officer, or none at all, when they handle bond hearings and other matters at night.

Although security has been increased in courtrooms, it's a job where things can go wrong at any time, said Berkeley County Sheriff Randy Smith.


"I've seen it happen many times before. It's just the inherent danger of the position," Smith said.

On May 22, Berkeley County Deputy T.A. Young took James Thomas Dierickx to Berkeley County Magistrate Court to be arraigned following an incident at a home in Hedgesville, W.Va., in which a woman was assaulted, court records alleged.

Dierickx, 33, of 753 Conservation Drive, Hedgesville, was taken before Magistrate Kristy Greer, who instructed Dierickx in how to complete paperwork to obtain an attorney, court records say.

Dierickx refused to initial and sign the paperwork, according to Berkeley County Magistrate Court records.

When Greer wrote "refused to sign" in the signature portion of the paperwork, Dierickx left his chair, lunged onto Greer's desk and attempted to grab her, court records allege.

Greer screamed and Young handcuffed Dierickx, court records said.

"He was trying to attack me. That was his intent," Greer said.

Dierickx was charged with retaliation against a court official, battery on a police officer and assault on a police officer, said court records. He was freed on $25,000 bond.

There have been other similar problems in Magistrate Court.

One night last summer, when Greer refused to grant a family protection order to a woman, the woman became verbally combative and would not leave the building, said Greer.

Greer hit a panic alarm button in her office, alerting Martinsburg City Police, who responded and removed the woman from the building, Greer said.

Earlier this year, Berkeley County Magistrate Carlton DeHaven had to go to the Magistrate Court building on John Street in Martinsburg at night to handle a bond revocation for a man.

The man had missed a court hearing, and a bail bondsman took the man to DeHaven to have him returned to the court, DeHaven said.

DeHaven said that as he began making arrangements to send the man to jail, the man threatened to throw a desk on DeHaven.

There was no bailiff in the building, but DeHaven, a former police officer, said he defused the situation himself.

"I had a little talk with him. I didn't need anybody," DeHaven said.

Going to the court building periodically at night, when no bailiffs are working, is when court officials are more likely to face possible dangerous situations, DeHaven said.

DeHaven said that is especially the case when he goes to the magistrate building at night to issue family protection orders to protect people from domestic violence. He said when he is called out at night to issue a family protection order, he usually arranges to meet the person at Magistrate Court.

Although it hasn't happened to him, the person from whom the petitioner is seeking protection could show up at the courthouse and cause trouble, DeHaven said.

"We're kind of here on our own, really. You could be in the middle real quick," he said.

Smith said there are systems in place to protect court officials at night. If a deputy responds to a domestic violence situation and a person seeks a family protection order while the deputy is still on duty, the deputy is required to go to court with that person, Smith said.

Magistrates can request that a deputy respond to Magistrate Court if they feel one is needed, he said.

"If he doesn't know about that, I don't know why," said Smith, responding to DeHaven's comments.

Greer said one problem with the panic alarms that are set up in the magistrates' offices is that police cannot identify which office the trouble is in.

And when police arrive, someone inside must let the officers into the building, Greer said.

"I always thought that was a little odd," she said.

When Smith took office, there were only about one or two bailiffs providing security in courtrooms. Now about 12 bailiffs guard front entrances to Magistrate Court and two Circuit Court buildings. The bailiffs also are positioned inside court rooms and hallways, and one patrols the perimeter of county buildings, Smith said.

Metal detectors have been installed at front entrances of court buildings, bailiffs have hand-held metal detectors to scan people for weapons and an X-ray machine has been installed in one of the Circuit Court buildings to scan purses and bags for weapons, court officials said.

"I'm comfortable," said Berkeley County Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes.

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