Stiffer penalties eyed for courthouse violence

Everyone entitled to equal protection in facilities, officials say

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SEATTLE -- It's already a felony to attack judges, court employees and county clerks doing their jobs in Washington state.

Now lawmakers want to make it a felony to assault anyone else at a courthouse, too.

Recognizing that many people who visit courthouses are stressed out or scared, Republicans and Democrats in Olympia have introduced bills in the House and Senate that would automatically elevate charges of fourth-degree assault -- a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail -- to third-degree assault, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, when an attack happens at a courthouse.

The measures would also give judges the option of imposing extra time behind bars for more serious assaults.

"Courthouses by their very nature are dangerous places," Attorney General Bob Ferguson testified during a hearing in the House last week. "We believe all citizens should have equal protection as they access our courts -- victims, witnesses, jurors and family members."

Two cases in the state in the past year highlight how volatile people can be when they're in the courthouse, Ferguson said. Last March, a man shot a Grays Harbor County sheriff's deputy with her own weapon at the courthouse in Montesano, then stabbed a judge who tried to save her. And last month, a man assaulted a plainclothes police detective at a courthouse in Kent after the detective asked him to stop intimidating witnesses.

Incidents on increase

Posting signs warning people that they could face enhanced penalties for an assault could help deter courthouse violence, Ferguson argued.

Though courthouse attacks remain rare, he referenced a report by a Minnesota-based company that provides court security consulting to suggest such incidents are on the rise nationally.

"Working in law enforcement, I've seen firsthand the tension and frustration some people feel when accessing our justice system," said a statement from Republican Rep. Mike Hope, a former Seattle police officer and co-sponsor of the House bill. "This bill will send a message that no matter how upset one might be, violence is not acceptable in our courthouses."

The measures have support from law enforcement and victims advocates, but one actual victim of courthouse violence said he opposes it.

Larry Jefferson, a public defender in Thurston County, testified on behalf of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and told House Public Safety Committee members about how he was once punched by a 21-year-old, mentally distressed client during jury selection.

He was mad about it, he said, but he also said he sympathized with people who might erupt in court.