Southold Town justice court, a facility that sees a high volume of cases each year, is the only town justice court on the East End without a metal detector. And one court officer has had enough, crying out for safety in a situation he fears could become deadly.
In a letter to the town board dated Aug. 14, Southold Town Court Officer Donato Cappabianca said he was writing in regard to security concerns in the courtroom.
Cappabianca, a former senior special agent for the U.S. Customs Service and a former law enforcement officer for 27 years, assigned to U.S. Secret Service protection detail, said he believes he is qualified to address the issue of security in the courtroom.
During his time at Southold Town justice court, Cappabianca said he’s taken “approximately six to eight knives” from defendants standing directly before the judge and right next to the assistant district attorney.
“Two of these knives were classified as illegal weapons and resulted in the arrest of the owners. I was only able to observe the knives because the owners failed to completely conceal them,” he wrote. “I could not even begin to venture a guess as to how many other knives and other weapons are concealed and carried into and out of the courtroom, on any given date, by both defendants and visitors to the court.”
Defendants, Cappabianca said, “are from all walks of life” and some, even gang members.
There are no security checks of bags, he added, and no metal detector at Town Hall, where justice court is held.
“There are too many scenarios and reasons why people will commit a violent act,” Cappabianca wrote. “The town has been extremely fortunate that no acts of violence have yet occurred in the courtroom.”
Over the past three years, Cappabianca said he has experienced “two to three incidents with defendants that could have easily gone from verbal to physical.” He added, “I believe the town is being short-sighted regarding the courtroom security. One unfortunate incident in the courtroom could result in physical bodily harm or, in the worse case scenario, death to one or more individuals” such as innocent bystanders or court personnel.
Cappabianca said if the town were to secure a magnometer, or metal detector, “a significant threat to security could be diminished.”
He added that he did not know of any other court that handles the volume of cases Southold does, without a magnometer manned by a court officer. “The cost of the equipment and the salary of for an additional court officer cannot compare to the cost of just one violent incident in the courtroom,” he said. Cappabianca added he hoped the matter would be addressed in the coming budget season.
On Tuesday, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the town board has convened a working group that will identify the needs. “We will implement a capital budget to make the upgrades,” he said.
When asked if a magnometer would be included in those plans, Russell responded, “Any improvements needed will be included in the plan.”
Those concerned for safety have noted that the justice court has windows and a door on the right side of the courtroom. While a new justice court had been discussed before the market crash years ago, so far, the temporary facilities at Town Hall have been in place for over 20 years.
Every other town justice court on the East End has a magnometer and some have a bullet proof wall behind the bench; Southold Town does not have those features, and many have expressed fears for the safety of personnel working in the courtroom. As far back as 2008, residents including Joan Egan often questioned the safety of the Town Hall meeting room and suggested implementation of security measures.
According to Arlene Hackel, spokeswoman for the New York State Office of Court Administration, while there are court security guidelines and best practices in place across New York State, “There is no mandate/requirement upon the municipality to operate a magnetometer. Since justice courts are funded by the local municipality, it may be a matter of lacking the funds to pay for personnel to operate.”
In recent years, she said, there have been facility and security upgrades implemented in justice courts around the state; justice courts may apply for Justice Court Assistance Project (JCAP) funding for facilities/security-related upgrades.
In August, a man was busted in Southold Town justice court after police said he used his cell phone and resisted arrest, police said.
According to Southold Town police, while court was in session, the defendant was asked numerous times not to use his cell phone. While in front of the judge, the man started to text on his phone. After being placed under arrest by the court officer, the defendnat used his body to prevent the court officer from placing him in the holding area, police said.