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Commissioners Court sides with defense attorneys in courthouse screening case

Friday, July 22, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court has come to the aid of defense attorneys in their battle to ward off tighter security measures at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center. On Tuesday, the court voted to ask the Travis County Sheriff’s Office to reconsider changes in procedure that would force the attorneys to endure metal detector screenings each time they enter the building.

Currently, the Sheriff’s Office conducts background checks on lawyers, and those who are approved are granted badges allowing them to skip the security lines.

The Sheriff’s Office began laying the groundwork for the new policy after the court voted in March to allocate $374,275 to beef up security in the wake of the Nov. 6 shooting of Judge Julie Kocurek at her West Austin home.

On Tuesday, Maj. Wes Priddy told the court that the new policy will take effect on Aug. 1.

“Following best practices, Dallas County has already implemented this,” explained Priddy. “Many other counties are going towards this. The federal government, of course, their courts have been doing this for quite some time.”

The proposed changes have not sat well with a vocal group of defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges. They have placed two large ads decrying the policy in The Austin Chronicle in recent months. On Tuesday, dozens of them showed up to urge the court to intervene.

Defense Attorney Betty Blackwell – for whose father, Judge Tom Blackwell, the criminal courthouse is in part named – said members of her profession will be extraordinarily burdened by the new screenings. She explained that throughout the course of any given day, a defense attorney will enter and exit the building multiple times.

“We believe that the current system is adequate for security and are asking you to not change it,” Blackwell said.

Kellie Bailey, president of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, told the court that there were 23 courthouse shootings in Texas from 2005 to 2012.

“I’d like to point out that zero of these 23 incidents in Texas were committed by defense attorneys,” Bailey said. “Zero of these incidents occurred because of electronic security failure, and zero of these incidents occurred because the badge ID program failed.” She added that the majority of the shootings happened outside of the courthouses.

Bailey also noted that the only gun-related incident to occur in Travis County occurred when an Austin police officer left his service revolver in a restroom.

Bailey offered the ACDLA’s counterproposal, which includes national background checks, random screenings and the creation of a stakeholders committee to explore security issues at the courthouse.

Attorney Joe James Sawyer unleashed a scathing criticism of the Sheriff’s Office’s new policy. He said it had stirred up “anger and resentment” and condemned the notion that each time he enters the courthouse he will have to empty his pockets, remove his belt and boots, and walk through a metal detector.

“We were once a respected part of this community,” Sawyer said. “Now we’re going to be little more than suspects, and there are a damn good bunch of us who think so.”

Sawyer also pointed out that lawyers and judges – for whom the policy is ostensibly intended to protect – often fraternize at social events outside of the courthouse. He asked rhetorically, “If we have to be searched going into the place we practice our profession, how can we be trusted where there’s alcohol?”

After hearing from the lawyers, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt temporarily concluded discussion of the item in order to take it into executive session later in the afternoon. When the court finally emerged from that closed-door conversation, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty motioned to ask the Sheriff’s Office to forgo implementation of the new policy but to require the attorneys to shoulder the costs of their own background checks.

Before dividing the motion into two separate votes, Eckhardt noted, “To be clear, this is a request of the sheriff’s department because it is clearly within their purview. This is nothing that we can direct them on.”

The court voted 4-0-1 to request that the new policy not go into effect, with Eckhardt registering a rare abstention. The vote to require the lawyers to pay for their background checks was unanimous.

Sheriff Greg Hamilton declined the Austin Monitor’s request to comment on the court’s action.

Photo by LoneStarMike (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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