SHELBY TOWNSHIP — If it hadn’t been for a pair of Utica policeman who happened to be inside 41-A District Court on Oct. 2, a scuffle inside the courthouse could have ended much worse.
An argument that began inside the magistrate’s room exploded in the lobby, as a father and daughter jumped two men who they claimed were harassing them. They threw chairs and other objects, forcing other visitors of the court, seated elbow-to elbow in the packed lobby, to scatter and huddle into corners. Utica Police Chief David Faber said a bystander was struck by one of the items.
The policeman used a Taser to bring down one of the men involved and arrested both the father and daughter for starting the fight. The altercation closed the court for 15 minutes in the middle of its post-lunch rush.
Depending on whom you ask, the fight had everything or nothing to do with the crammed space inside the district courthouse. But law enforcement officials and attorneys said it was an incident waiting to happen, as both sides of criminal and civil matters sit in proximity to one another while awaiting their time in front of the judge.
“It’s just not safe,” attorney David Sinutko said recently outside the district courthouse. “There’s nowhere to meet with your clients.”
He pointed to several other courts in metro Detroit where suspects and victims are separated properly. Some courthouses, Sinutko continued, have separate rooms altogether for witnesses and victims. The hallways are set up so victims and their families aren’t forced to come face-to-face with the perpetrators.
“They’re great buildings,” he said.
Shelby’s courthouse is different. The small lobby creates a volatile mix of suspects and victims. “You got victims milling around with defendants,” Sinutko said. “And in a lot of the domestic violence cases, they’re all sitting right there.”
While the matter of building a new 41-A District Court has been tossed back and forth among officials from the court, Shelby Township and Macomb Township for the past 10 years, the people who visit or work in or near the court say a new, larger courthouse is past due.
“That building does not suit the needs we have in today’s environment,” Faber said.
The court has used the 70-year-old former school building for 30 years. Back then, the combined population of the three municipalities it serves — Shelby, Macomb and Utica — was 58,000, according to data collected by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. Today, that figure is approaching 235,000, with nearly 700 people a day walking through the court’s metal detectors, Court Administrator Laura Porter said.
Yet throughout the population boom, the district court has not grown, leaving its rooms, lobby and parking lot a mix of inmates, victims, senior citizens and library patrons. It has one judge and one magistrate. Comparatively, its sister district court in Sterling Heights has three judges and one magistrate serving a population of 129,000.
The limitations of the building, which the court shares with the Shelby Township library, Shelby TV News and the township’s senior citizen center, creates potentially hazardous situations, sources say.
The female holding cell, which consists of one bench, has no toilet. When a female suspect has to use the bathroom, deputies have to empty the male holding cell, shackle the male inmates together in the narrow hallway and allow the female suspect to use the toilet.
The lobby is congested, leaving it standing-room-only during the peak hours.
Aaron Thompson, 19, who had been waiting for an hour with his mother in the lobby, said he had never been to the court before but recognized it was a mess.
“It seems they can be a little more organized,” Thompson said. “It’s a little chaotic.”
David Skorupski, 27 and a college student, was asked to be in court for a traffic ticket at 2 p.m. “It’s my first time, so I don’t know how it all unfolds here,” Skorupski said. “But it is a half-hour after the time I was told to be here.”
The door where prisoners enter the court is only feet away from where Shelby’s senior citizens enter their center.
“The parking is a problem, and when they have a big case or event, the senior center takes a back seat,” Nina Turner, 87, of Shelby, said while setting up for the senior center’s flea market fundraiser. She spends three days a week there, commuting from her home in southwest Shelby since 1998. “We have to watch prisoners come in and out, and we always hope everything goes well, but you never know. There isn’t room for us both to have something happening on the same day.”
“I happen to think the parking lot is extremely crowded,” said 70-year-old Rita Molenda, also from Shelby. “Or you can’t find a spot at all.”
Molenda said she often has to walk a long distance from her car to the senior center. “If the courthouse stays here, we’d need another lot,” she said. “It’s too congested.”
Molenda said she’d like to see the courthouse go to Macomb.
The points of contention between the two townships are the long-term finances and the economic feasibility of a new courthouse. Shelby says it cannot afford the debt associated with a new building. Macomb wants the courthouse and has even planned to build it along Broughton Road across the street from its town hall but is still evaluating the costs of operating it.
Until the move, residents of the fastest-growing region in metro Detroit will continue to share the tight space inside the old school building.