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Incidents again raise concerns over court safety

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published March 2, 2012

 Court Administrator Rob Curtis said a prisoner slipped on a stair and was knocked unconscious as he was being brought into court Feb. 9.

Court Administrator Rob Curtis said a prisoner slipped on a stair and was knocked unconscious as he was being brought into court Feb. 9.

Photo by Brian C. Louwers

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WARREN — A prisoner’s recent trip and fall, and an attempt to bolt by a man facing jail time have again raised red flags for officials at the 37th District Court.

“It shows the deficit of the structural design of the court,” 37th District Court Judge John Chmura said last week. “It’s not something that can be fixed by putting a new roof on the court. It’s not something that can be fixed by adding more police and security officers. You have to redesign the building from the ground up again to fix the problem.”

Chmura and Court Administrator Rob Curtis have repeatedly called attention to issues at the court ranging from security to building maintenance, and have suggested using the roughly $4.5 million in a building fund generated by fees assessed to those who use the court as a down payment on a new courthouse designed to today’s standards.

Court officials said a study commissioned by the city determined a new courthouse would cost about $16 million. That’s slightly less, they said, than the study found it would cost to retrofit the existing building.

The remainder of the cost, Chmura said, could be paid through bonds, possibly backed by the city’s Downtown Development Authority District and offset by funds collected at the court, meaning it would cost Warren taxpayers nothing.

The plan, however, has met with resistance from City Hall, and Mayor Jim Fouts instead proposed to fix structural issues including a leaky roof and faulty heating and cooling controls instead of moving forward with a new facility.

Chmura said that’s putting the city at risk, not to mention those who use the court, especially in light of recent events.

Curtis said he was alerted to an incident on Feb. 28, when a man in Chmura’s courtroom chose to flee when confronted with jail time for past-due fines and costs related to a criminal case.

The man bolted from the courtroom and made it through the main door and outside before he was stopped by armed court security and Warren police officers.

“The problem is the way the building is designed, if that person is able to run through the courtroom and run through a potentially crowded area and out the front door, and not get taken care of until he is out in the grass,” Curtis said.

He said prisoners in modern courthouses are brought in through secure entry points and only see attorneys, police, judges, litigants and the general public inside secure courtrooms.

Prisoners in Warren are routinely walked into court through narrow stairwells and through common areas in close proximity to the public.

An incident on Feb. 9 left a Macomb County Jail prisoner brought to Warren to face narcotics charges unconscious. The Warren man reportedly tripped while handcuffed along with two other prisoners in a stairwell, hit his head on a wall and was knocked out.

According to a report, EMS was summoned, and the man was transported by an ambulance to a local hospital, where he was later released and sent back to jail.

The incident was further evidence, Chmura and Curtis said, of the need for a new court that meets modern design standards.

However, they said concerns lingered about the future of the $4.5 million in the court’s building fund.

Last year, Fouts unsuccessfully asked the City Council to make repairs at the court and to use the remaining funds to balance the city’s budget.

The mayor repeatedly stated he would not support the construction of a new court in light of the city’s financial situation, and he said he favored using the money to pay for other things, including police and fire protection, and needed equipment.

“The building isn’t safe. Unless the city eventually takes care of this problem, it’s going to someday cost them a whole lot of money,” Chmura said. “That prisoner didn’t fall because of a defective roof. The design is not a good design. It’s unsafe.”

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