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LEGAL AID SOCY. OF ORANGE CTY. v. CROSSON

February 26, 1992

THE LEGAL AID SOCIETY OF ORANGE COUNTY, Plaintiff, against MATTHEW T. CROSSON, CHIEF ADMINISTRATOR OF THE COURTS, STATE OF NEW YORK, Defendant.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: GERARD L. GOETTEL

 GOETTEL, D. J.,

 Sadly, newspaper headlines record daily our society's growing willingness to do violence against those we live beside, those we do not know, and even those whom we love. Courts, long viewed as bastions of justice and security, now struggle against the same violence that invades our schools, roams our streets, and tears at the very fabric of our society threatening to rip it apart.

 In no small way, this case concerns an ongoing attempt by a court to reclaim the security central to its ability to dispense justice to those passing through its marbled corridors. Today, these corridors are often guarded by a magnetometer, commonly known as a walk-through metal detector. The Orange County Family Court, located in the Government Center Building in Goshen and part of the Unified Court System of New York, operates a magnetometer at its entrance. Plaintiff objects to its use with respect to its juvenile clients.

 The Government Center in Goshen is also home to County and State Supreme Courts although these facilities occupy separate wings of the Center from the wing housing the Family Court. Unlike the Family Court which has only one main entrance, the County and Supreme Courts have a number of possible entrances available for the public's use.

 A magnetometer is a device shaped like a door-frame that uses an electromagnetic field to detect the presence of metallic objects. Pursuant to written rules governing the use of magnetometers effective April 1, 1989, all persons entering the Family Court with the exception of building employees and people with official identification, are requested to remove all metal objects from their pockets and walk through the archway. If the magnetometer is activated, a person is again asked to remove any metal objects and pass through. If the person does not wish to be searched, he or she remains free to terminate the search, collect their belongings, and leave. If a second positive reading is registered, people still wishing to enter must be searched by a hand-held scanner until the metal object activating the magnetometer is located.

 For the courts in Orange County, the OCSS does not provide security services directly; it sets policy and provides procedure and training for use of magnetometers. Orange County deputy sheriffs provide the security at the Family Court. Before the magnetometer was installed, deputy sheriffs set up stations of desks and chairs between the three courtrooms used by the Family Court. There, they visually screened persons entering the Court and conducted pat-down searches when they reasonably suspected a person might be carrying a weapon.

 In August 1989, at the request of the Hon. David Ritter, the then Administrative Judge of the 9th Judicial District (of which Orange County is a part), OCSS conducted a security survey of the 9th District courts. OCSS made several recommendations including installation of a metal detector at the Family Court and at the entrance to the County court, Criminal Term.

 Magnetometers have been installed in many of the courts in this area, particularly in family courts. Magnetometers have been used routinely in all New York City family courts since 1985 and in the City's criminal courts since 1988. Since 1987, magnetometers have been installed in all the family courts in the 9th Judicial District in addition to 9 other counties in the state. In all, 32 courts statewide representing 10 counties use magnetometers and courts in 6 other counties currently have plans to install them. Federal courts, including the one these parties have entered, routinely use magnetometers.

 In June 1990, the Office of Court Security Services ("OCSS"), created in 1987 to implement a statewide initiative to improve court security, installed a magnetometer in the vestibule located just inside the entrance to the Orange County Family Court. Shortly thereafter, it was moved to a room immediately adjacent to the vestibule, located between it and the security station. Since the metal detector's installation, all people desiring to enter the court have been required to pass through the magnetometer. No magnetometer has been installed at any of the entrances to the County or Supreme courts in the Government Center. Deputy sheriffs posted the various entrances to the County and Supreme courts continue to visually inspect and selectively pat-down persons entering the buildings.

 The decision to install the magnetometer at the Family Court was based upon several considerations. Family courts are viewed as having greater potential for violent outbursts due to the highly personal and emotional issues involved. According to Family Court Judges Scancarelli and Ritter, litigants are often angry and sometimes emotionally unbalanced. The Unusual Incidents records submitted by defendant attest to the unpredictable, often violent events that occur in family courts.

 By way of anecdote, defendant points out that a fatal shooting occurred at the Westchester County Family Court before its magnetometer was installed in 1984. Additionally, Judge Ritter lodged several complaints concerning the lack of adequate security that enable people to enter his court with weapons. In February 1990, a Family Court clerk filed an incident report regarding a threat made by a litigant to shoot everyone in the courtroom if his daughter was taken away from him.

 Over a three year period, an OCSS printout generated in August 1991 and incorporated in the 12th Annual Report of the Chief Administrator of the Courts, reported that some 96 threats were made against Family Court judges, or over 25% of all the reported threats made against state judges. The Westchester County Family Courts reported some 36 violent incidents between 1984 and 1990, plus an additional 24 incidents involving minors and 42 incidents involving weapons with an additional 7 attributed to minors.

 Plaintiff contends that no serious incidents have occurred at the Orange County Family Court, particularly relating to juveniles. Matthew O'Reilly, Security Coordinator for the 9th Judicial District, stated that records show that in the first year after the magnetometer was installed in the Orange County Family ...


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