By Denise Civiletti, The Suffolk Times
Long Island, NEW YORK - "It's like being on a lucky streak. Sooner or later it's going to end."
That's how Southold Town Justice Bill Price describes the odds of averting disaster in the town's overcrowded makeshift courtroom when court is in session on Fridays.
A lone court officer, armed with a handgun, is the only protection afforded bench, bar and citizenry in Southold Town Hall when court is in session.
That's not enough, in Justice Price's experience. Things can get hot in the courtroom sometimes, he says. Like the recent occasion when a defendant in custody became belligerent and abusive as Justice Price attempted to arraign him in a standing-room-only courtroom. The defendant's behavior incited members of the audience, some of whom may have been his family and friends, to join in the disruption. The only way the defendant could be brought under control, the judge said, was by being "put down" by the sheriff's deputies who had delivered him to Justice Price from the county jail for arraignment. That brought angry shouts of "police brutality" from the audience, as the deputies dragged the man from the courtroom. "It started getting rowdy," he said. For several tense moments, Justice Price said, he feared losing control of his courtroom -- or worse.
"Thank God the deputies were there," he said. But during most court sessions, he's only got his gavel and that one court officer to maintain order.
There's no metal detector to help prevent weapons from being brought into the Town Hall meeting room, which doubles as the Justice Court. The double doors which allow access to the room from the parking lot often aren't even locked, says.
On many Fridays, the courtroom is jammed with litigants and defendants -- and their families and attorneys. All seats are filled and the line of people waiting to get into the meeting room overflows into the Town Hall lobby and out into the parking lot, he said.
"We don't know who's in the courtroom. Do they have a weapon, or don't they have a weapon? It is just not safe," Justice Price said. "It is dangerous."
"The under sheriff called me up to say [the sheriff's deputies] don't like coming into our court because it's really dangerous," he said. The justice court liaison to the state office of court administration also reported to the state that the Southold courtroom is "very dangerous," Justice Price said.
The town justice court handles both civil and criminal cases. Its criminal docket on any given Friday will often top 200 cases. These range from vehicle and traffic violations to arraignments of defendants for the most serious of alleged crimes, including violent felonies.
"We handle any criminal case that starts in the Town of Southold, whether it's something simple like public intoxication, or murder. They all start here," Justice Price told the Southold Town Board at its work session Tuesday -- a meeting held in the very same meeting room, which on Tuesday morning was practically empty.
"Our workload has increased significantly," said Justice Price, who was first elected to the bench in 1981. "Last year, we handled more than 7,500 matters."
Even the judge's "chambers" are makeshift -- a trailer attached to the back of Town Hall in 1990 as a "temporary fix." The trailer is overflowing with files and can barely accommodate its clerical staff. It, too, has safety and security issues, he said. The front door separating the clerks from the public doesn't fully close, let alone lock. Clerks in the justice court office on Tuesday, who asked that their names not be printed in the paper, said they often fear for their safety, with just a "panic button" alarm linked to the police station in Peconic as their only security.
The judge asked the Town Board to act swiftly to relocate the court to a larger, more secure facility. He said he's asked the office of court administration for advice about what size facility is needed for the town court's case load.
"We need a properly designed separate courthouse that's going to be adequate for right now but also for the years to come," Justice Price said.
He said in a phone interview yesterday that fellow Town Justice Rudolph Bruer shares his concerns and supports his request to the Town Board. A phone call to Justice Bruer's law office yesterday was not returned by presstime.
Board members discussed possible alternative court locations, such as the current recreation center after the Peconic school is renovated for use as a new recreation facility.
"I ask this board to be committed to finding a separate complex for the court," Supervisor Scott Russell told the board. "In our workplace violence survey, every department in town government focused on Friday court sessions as the biggest concern," he added.
Justice Price also said that in addition to overcrowding, the dual use of the meeting room creates problems if it is in use when justices need to arraign a defendant or hear an application for an arrest warrant.
"A week or two ago, the ZBA was meeting in here and [we] needed to do an arraignment" of a man charged with driving while intoxicated, Justice Price said. The arraignment was delayed because the ZBA was in the middle of a hearing. "Turns out the police released the person I was supposed to arraign," Judge Price said. "Since it was a DWI, I'm supposed to take his driver's license away right then and there. That didn't happen," he said. "The police released him."