Going safely into and out of a criminal courtroom isn’t as simple as walking through the main doors. Regulating access for each type of participant is key to courtroom security.
Judges, attorneys, staff members, jurors, spectators, and the criminal defendant all have separate needs when it comes to security in a courtroom. Modern courtrooms are specially designed to keep the flow of traffic between these different groups separate and secure from each other.
The door an individual walks through to get inside the courtroom is an access point. Usually a courtroom has five access points – one each for the judge, support staff, jurors, the public, and prisoners. These pathways lead from the three main courthouse circulation types – restricted, secure, and public.
The door a judge uses to access the courtroom is usually located near the bench, preferably on the back wall. The door should lead directly into the judge’s chambers or robing room, or it should open into a space restricted to the judge and staff.
I was recently evaluating a courthouse in Texas where staff members told me the doors for judges to access their courtrooms were all directly behind the bench. This, they contended, gave the judge the most direct route to an exit in the event of a dangerous situation during a proceeding. While there is merit in placing the door directly behind the judge’s bench, this location can cause difficulties, particularly for redesigning an existing courtroom. The building space may not allow a door to be placed there. More importantly, the door would be at the floor-level of the judge’s bench, which is usually two feet higher than the rest of the courtroom floor. Since the judge’s area overlooks the courtroom, the door would need to lead to steps or a ramp, neither of which may be feasible. Placing the door directly behind the judge’s bench may be an ideal location if the layout allows, but a location to the side of the bench on the rear wall - or the rear corner of the side wall - will also work.
Just as the judge should be able to travel directly from chambers to the bench, the jury’s journey should also be short and sweet. Some courthouse layouts put the jurors’ courtroom access point on the back wall near the judge’s bench, which is acceptable. But it should ideally be located on the same side of the courtroom as the jury box so that jury members can walk directly to their box without passing the defense table.
Jury members should also not have to walk through the spectators’ area, even if the jurors come directly from the jury room. The public may include family members of the victim or defendant – or both. Unwarranted visual, verbal, or physical contact with a juror is wrought with problems.
I was on a jury for a murder trial in an old courthouse that retained much of its original historic layout and generally lacked any design provisions for courthouse security. Each time we entered or exited the courtroom, we walked directly past the victim’s parents. The family in this particular example did not say or do anything to affect our decision as a jury, but as an architect involved in courthouse design, I took note of the potential for problematic interactions.
The access point for prisoners in a criminal courtroom should be on the wall opposite the jury box. Prisoners and witnesses who are in police custody shouldn’t walk past the jurors. The prisoner’s door into the courtroom should lead directly from a prisoner holding area or a secured area.
I have visited so many courtrooms where prisoners in custody are escorted through a public corridor and even through ones used by judges. In courthouses like these, judges have told me that their primary security concern is coming across prisoners as they are taken through a hallway on the way to the courtroom. Just as dangerous are situations where prisoners are taken through corridors used by the public. I’ve been told while surveying several courthouses that shackled defendants were marched directly past their family members, or even past families of opposing parties or victims’ families, who were waiting outside the courtroom. This is an awkward situation at best, and could be a dangerous situation at worst.
Members of the public should always gain access to a courtroom from a door located behind the short wall that separates the spectators’ seating area from the attorneys’ tables, jury box, and bench. These are usually the main entry doors into the courtroom, which are accessed from a public waiting area just outside the courtroom.
Attorneys, non-custody defendants, and most witnesses (those not in custody) would also use the public entrance into the courtroom. If the courtroom has attorney-witness conference rooms, these should be near the courtroom’s public entrance, and accessible from public circulation.
The people who make a courtroom run smoothly are often overlooked when it comes to safe and secure access. Law clerks, court reporters, courtroom deputies, and other court officers should have a dedicated entrance that leads from an area of restricted traffic flow. Staff members could use the judge’s door that leads to a restricted area, which would work at the beginning and end of a court session. But this is impractical when a staff member needs to enter or exit the courtroom during a proceeding, as using the door behind the judge could become a distraction. A separate door for staff is ideal.
Pathways to Courtroom Security
Everyone who takes part in a criminal court proceeding needs to have safe and secure access to the courtroom. Provide each user group with a separate door, and keep each group as isolated as possible from the others as they make their way to their seats. While no design can guarantee a perfect courtroom environment, this is certainly a case where mixed company is not a good thing!
This post was originally published in June 2014 and has been refreshed for content and new information.
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