Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Rising Courthouse Violence

When a person considers the safety that they are afforded at a courthouse, they think that it is relatively secure because there are several armed police officers present at all times.  At the same time, it is difficult to ignore that going to a courthouse might be risky business by the mere fact of what occurs in a courthouse on a day-to-day basis.  It does not matter whether the case deals with traffic violations or family-law disputes, many times a judge or jury can have lasting effects on a person’s life.  It is no surprise that emotions run high regardless of what side of the issue you are advocating for.

“There has been a steady increase in courthouse shootings, bombings, and arson attacks over the last 40 years––28 incidents from 1970-79, 45 from 1980-89, 67 from 1990-99 and 88 from 2000-2009.”  Between 1990 and 2007, “there have been at least twenty-six shootings in the courthouses across the United States.”  Out of the twenty-six incidents, around half of the shootings involved family-law disputes.  More recently, between the years of 2010 and 2011, there have been an estimated 117-documented incidents of courthouse violence throughout the United States.                                          

One of the most recent examples of courthouse violence was a shooting that took place on Monday, February 11 at a Delaware courthouse.  “The shooting was a culmination of years of strife between the Matusiewicz and Belford family.”  For several years, David Matusiewicz had been fighting his ex-wife, Christine Belford, for the custody of their three daughters.  During the bitter custody battle, David kidnapped his daughters and took them to Nicaragua after he had forged his ex-wife’s signature on a loan document.  As a result, his parental rights were terminated in 2011 while he was serving a prison sentence for the kidnapping.  Although he lost custody of his daughters, Matusiewicz had a court order against him that required him to make child support payments to his wife––Matusiewicz was behind on the payments.  On the morning of February 11, both Belford and Matusiewicz were present at the courthouse to attend a child-support hearing.  However, Thomas Matusiewicz, David’s father, opened fire in the public lobby of the courthouse killing his former daughter-in-law and her friend by firing a single shot at each woman.  Immediately after, Thomas Matusiewicz exchanged fire with officers and died––although it is uncertain whether it was an officer’s bullet that killed him or a self-inflicted wound.  Two officers wearing armored vests were also injured during this incident.

Courthouse shootings are extremely deadly since the shooter typically shoots his victim from a very close range.  In twenty of the twenty-six incidents that occurred from 1990-2007, there was at least one person who died.  When incidents like this occur, the first questions to arise are:  were there proper safeguards in place?  And, could this incident have been prevented?  After incidents like this, people generally jump to the conclusion that proper safeguards were not in place.  While the details of the Delaware incident are currently under investigation, it is clear that the Delaware courthouse had several safeguards in place.  There are usually a dozen armed officers on duty who are “assisted by roaming court bailiffs and at least one police dog and handler.”  Additionally, there is a security checkpoint near the front door.  However, it is known that Thomas Matusiewicz had not yet passed “through the security perimeter located a few feet inside the front doors.”  If these safeguards were already in place, then what else could be added to protect those people in a courthouse?  The Wilmington Mayor, Dennis P. Williams, thinks that one thing that can be done in order to further safety is “pushing the security out to the entrances, making visitors enter one by one and eliminating the lobby as an area to congregate before being screened.”  This would prevent incidents from occurring inside of the courthouse.  However, others could argue that this would still leave people exposed while they are waiting to go into the courthouse.

Other jurisdictions are taking additional precautions to deter potential perpetrators of violence at courthouses.  For example in Washington state, the Legislature is reviewing whether to pass a bill which would make “misdemeanor assaults that occur in and around courthouses to be treated like felonies, regardless of the victim, and want courthouse felonies to be treated as an aggravating factor for judges to consider during sentencing.”  These stiffer penalties for violent acts in or around a courthouse are not without cause.  Two fairly recent incidents have prompted the attempt to impose stiffer penalties.  The first incident took place in March 2012 where a man stabbed and shot an officer as a courthouse and proceeded to stab a judge who attempted to aid the officer.  The second incident took place in January of this year, when a man assaulted an officer after the officer asked him to the attacker to stop intimidating witnesses.

The idea of pushing security checkpoints to the entrances of courthouses and making stiffer penalties for crimes committed in or around courthouse would work well together to lower the incidents of violence in and around courthouse.  The addition of the stiffer penalties would provide a deterrent effect that might curb some of the incidents.  However, these deterrent effects of these penalties can only go so far since people who are determined to commit a crime will not decide not to hurt someone because they might be in jail for a longer amount of time.  Other additional precautions that could be considered would be screening people prior to them entering the parking lot of the courthouse so as to prevent people carrying weapons and/or hiring more officers to work as security in courthouses.  However, these last two options could be cost prohibitive. 

Elizabeth Rivera
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

Image courtesy of ABC News

1 comment:

  1. I think penalties for crimes outside courthouse would be a better way to deter those crimes. For one thing, it did actually deter people from committing such conducts out of the fear of punishment; second, legislation takes a longer time to pass a bill, the delay would cause a problem, because by then the crime could have happened.