Dakota County renovation may expand court screening
Construction may start by 2013
Millions may soon be spent upgrading Dakota County’s Judicial Center in Hastings, in part to address security concerns.
Sheriff Dave Bellows said his priorities are to add security entrance checks for visitors to the in-custody courtroom, located near the jail entrance, and to the courtrooms in West St. Paul.
A plan being considered for the renovation work would address both issues without the ongoing expense of additional staffing, Bellows said.
At the jail now, visitors observe proceedings from behind a glass wall, but do not go through the metal detector and X-ray process.
Renovation plans may move the in-custody courtroom so visitors would go through the regular courtroom screening area and prisoners would enter through a secure hallway through the jail.
“As sheriff, I’d like to see that nobody goes into a courtroom without point-of-entry screening,” Bellows said.
At the Hastings screening point, the only one in any of the three Dakota County courthouses, officers daily confiscate objects that could be used as weapons.
Among items the screening has kept from Dakota County courtrooms in Hastings: crochet needles, box cutters, screw drivers, knives and scissors.
“Some people call them self-defense items.” Deputy Arturo Herrera said. “We call them contraband.”
Courtroom security is of particular concern in family court, said First District Chief Judge Edward Lynch.
Many of those cases, which include orders for protection and child custody, are heard in West St. Paul.
Renovation of the in-custody courtroom would free up a deputy to staff front-entry screening in West St. Paul without adding personnel expense, Bellows said.
Adding screening to the courtrooms is a change Lynch said he supports.
“Any family law area has the potential for emotions to run high,” Lynch said. “When you read through enough petitions of orders for protection, you understand how volatile those proceedings can be.”
Herrera said entry screening requires visitors to pass through a metal detector and empty pockets and remove shoes and belts for X-ray.
Anything found that could be considered a weapon can either be returned to the person’s vehicle or confiscated.
People can become agitated going through screening and also in the courtroom, Herrera said.
The last time he was in a courtroom proceeding, a man became upset after the judge ordered him into custody for nonpayment of child support.
“He started taking off his shirt and had both fists clenched like he was going to fight us,” Herrera said.
Despite warnings to cooperate, the man continued to resist and wound up being subdued with a Taser so deputies could handcuff him and take him into custody.
“Sometimes people do get hurt, but we do as much as we can to control the situation,” Herrera said.
Lynch said another aspect of the renovation project being considered is to address other issues in the court system.
In the juvenile court area, officials are considering renovations to add conference rooms and a separate hallway for juveniles to enter court hearings.
“Juveniles are not supposed to have their cases known to the public,” Lynch said. “But when they are marched through public hallways with handcuffs on, it’s pretty obvious there’s an issue.”
Dakota County’s renovation process is in its early stages, with officials meeting to determine needs, but Bellows said construction could start by early next year.
The county has budgeted $3 million for the renovation, but that number could change as the process continues, said Dakota County Facilities Manager Ken Harrington.