TILLAMOOK, Ore. – During a media tour of Tillamook County’s court facilities on Wednesday, July 29, Circuit Court Judge John Hill invited Tillamook Headlight Herald Editor Chelsea Yarnell and I to sit in the same places the typical plaintiff and defendant would occupy at the counsel table in Tillamook County Circuit Court Room 108.
… There was one chair between us, which, Hill pointed out, can pose challenges to the comfort and even safety of those appearing before a judge in the space. It can also hamper attorneys’ abilities to confer with their clients. If there are two attorneys and two clients at the table, which is often the case, “Attorneys can’t talk to their clients without going out to the hall,” he said.
Presiding Tillamook County Circuit Court Judge Mari Garric Trevino said the problem extends to domestic violence and abuse cases, such as a request for a restraining order. “Imagine you’re a woman, you’re really scared, you finally got up the nerve to get a restraining order, and there’s the guy, right there,” she said, pointing to the opposite side of the lone counsel table.
In fact, the tour was designed to show us why Tillamook County officials are planning to leverage $7.8 million in state funds to build a new Oregon State Court facility on county-owned property located between the Tillamook County Justice Center – where the Tillamook County Sheriff’s Office, jail and Oregon State Police are currently located – and Long Prairie Road, near the Port of Tillamook Bay.
While there is no official design for the new facility, it would likely include three courtrooms, court staff office space, judges’ chambers and office space for the Tillamook County District Attorney and his staff, said Tillamook County Commissioner Mark Labhart, who was among organizers of yesterday’s tour.
The structure would not replace the Courthouse, which would continue to serve as Tillamook County government headquarters.
Labhart explained that in 2008, the Oregon Judicial Department conducted a study of the 48 state court facilities in Oregon, looking at building security, structural deficiencies and safety. “The Tillamook County Courthouse, which was constructed in 1932, ranked 45th out of 48; the fourth-worst facility in the state,” he wrote in a pre-tour press handout.
Read the entire handout, which details the OJD’s findings, along with those of Tillamook County officials, here:
Although the County has made minor security improvements since the 2008 assessment, many problems with the space persist, said Labhart. The worst of these directly affect Courtroom 108, which is the smaller of the existing two Circuit Courtrooms.
The maximum occupancy for Room 108 is 46 people, said Hill. On arraignment days, “I regularly count 46. We’ve done everything to make this space work. (However), the math doesn’t lie.”
County officials cite criteria used by Crook and Jefferson counties when designing their new shared court facility, scheduled for completion in June of 2016, which indicates that the recommended size for a courtroom for 12-person jury trials is 1,500 to 1,800 square feet, as well as the American Bar Association, which recommends such a space be 2,000 square feet.
Tillamook County’s Room 108 is, by contrast, 532 square feet in size, which, they say, poses not only fundamental logistical problems, but considerable safety concerns, such as:
- There is inadequate space for 12 jurors to sit comfortably;
- The witness stand is literally only a few feet from the jurors, and a witness can barely walk up the witness stand without stepping on the jurors’ feet;
- The “well” from which the attorneys can present their cases is 5 feet wide. Use of an easel, elmo device, or podium are not possible;
- The counsel table is too small to accommodate multiple party cases or to allow attorneys to have confidential conversation with their clients;
- There is a pillar which entirely blocks jurors’ seating in seats No. 5 and 6 from seeing the counsel table;
- The courtroom clerk has insufficient room to make copies and process paperwork;
- There is not enough seating to accommodate spectators in high-profile cases or to allow prospective jurors to be comfortably seated;
- If a litigant needs an interpreter while testifying, there is no room for an interpreter to stand without blocking either the judge or the jurors;
- It is almost impossible for a juror in a wheelchair to participate in a trial due to lack of space. In the spectator portion of the courtroom, citizens in wheelchairs have an extremely difficult time going in/out of the courtroom and wheelchairs in the gallery make ingress/egress for other persons very difficult;
- Jurors cannot enter the courtroom directly and instead must travel through public hallways from the jury room.
- There is not secure entry or exit from the judge’s chambers to the bench. A judge entering the courtroom walks within a few feet of in-custody defendants;
- The jurors are within a few feet from the defendant at the counsel table;
- The witnesses, including defendants, walk within inches of jurors when taking the stand;
- The judge’s bench is 12 feet from the attorney table where sometimes angry and/or hostile litigants are seated;
- There is a single small door in the corner of the courtroom so that any evacuation of the courtroom due to security issues would be difficult;
- In cases where weapons such as knives are introduced as evidence, these weapons are within a few feet of all participants during the proceeding.
Some of the above issues could lead to a mistrial or litigation, said Hill. “As a judge, you’re thinking, ‘Is there an appellate issue created by the building itself?’ This is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
The matter of transporting jail inmates to and from the Courthouse is especially fraught with complications, said Deputy Scott Kilgore, Courthouse security officer. The building lacks a sally port, a secure, contained area between a transport vehicle and the building entrance, which creates potential escape risks, he added.
“Most escapes from jail happen during transport,” said Tillamook County Sheriff Andy Long. He referred to an incident in 1994 when the local jail was still located at the Courthouse in which State Corrections inmate Alan Shelby was transported to Tillamook to testify in a trial and he managed to escape by unlocking his handcuffs with a key he had purchased in prison and knocked down a surprised deputy before dashing from the scene on foot.
While it is possible to allow inmates to make some court appearances virtually via video link from the local jail, such technology does not allow defendants to consult with their attorneys on the spot, said Trevino.
Mixing inmates with court witnesses and spectators is also dicey, said Kilgore. “You’ve got inmates shuffling through the public (Courthouse) hallways in belly chains and leg irons. You’ve got to watch that they aren’t being slipped something. And I’m always concerned about the stairs – I’ve tripped on them.”
Long said a relatively new law requiring defendants who are current jail inmates to appear in the courtroom unshackled means having to unlock cuffs and chains before they enter the courtroom, which, because there is no inmate “antechamber,” creates a safety risk itself.
All of the above problems would be solved with the new building, which, said Labhart, would be connected to the current Tillamook County Justice Facility, so inmates would be transported to court securely.
The estimated total cost of facility is $15 million, which – after the $7.8 million the Legislature committed to the project – leaves $7.8 million for Tillamook County to raise, said Labhart. “I believe each commissioner is considering our options and have some ideas that we need to discuss in open session in the future,” he noted, regarding how to generate the County’s 50 percent share.
As for the Legislature’s financial backing, “Sen. Betsy Johnson was key in this,” said Labhart. “She worked for us pretty strongly. There are only three courthouses that got funded. Huge kudos go to the Senator. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiating on our behalf.”
The new building would save the County some money in terms of the rent it currently pays to house the Department of Community Development, which is currently located in the building owned by Fibre Federal Credit Union on west 3rd Street, and other departments, all of which would likely relocate to the Courthouse on Laurel Avenue, said Labhart.
State bonds to fund the Legislature’s promised 50 percent won’t be sold until late winter or early spring of 2017, said Labhart. “This means we will have to wait until at least then to build anything because we can’t afford to upfront the $7.8 million of State match funds out of County funds. … So, it’s going to be several years before we see anything happen on the ground.”
“I really have to commend Andy and Deputy Kilgore,” said Hill. “And I think the commissioners are smart to be proactive about this. Right now, (court staff) are doing amazing work. They’re doing more with less.” The question, he said, is how long they can keep it up. “The definition of negligence is knowing something is wrong and not doing anything about it. The (Tillamook County) commissioners are trying not to be negligent.”