Inside the security issues at the Moffat County Courthouse
Construction of the new Moffat County Courthouse is well underway, and a plan for demolition of the old property is in place, but how exactly did this situation get where it is today?
The need for Moffat County to upgrade its courthouse for security and safety is not a new conversation. It predates current elected officials, county staff and the district’s chief judge.
“The conversation really started before me,” said 14th Judicial District Chief Judge Michael A. O’Hara III, who started as chief judge in 2003 and faced some immediate problems in the district.
“I went and met with the commissioners multiple times,” O’Hara recalled. “Back then, I was just trying to get some security in place for the buildings, and it was difficult.”
Now that the decision has been made to construct a new courthouse, it’s stirred up conversations across the community about whether a new courthouse was really necessary and how the 14th Judicial Court has the power to order counties to upgrade facilities.
Orders from the courts
In Colorado, courts have authority to direct counties to construct new judicial facilities if existing facilities are unsafe or inadequate.
“Individual counties are responsible for providing space for the court services,” O’Hara said. “I am not saying that’s how it should be, but that is how it’s set up.”
The precedent originated from a 1988 situation in Mesa County where a defendant was being transported to district court and his wife maced a sheriff’s deputy as she armed the defendant with a gun she smuggled into the courthouse. The wife also had a gun, and the couple held three courthouse employees hostage.
According to the case records, the hostages were released, but the wife died from a gunshot wound. The report states that the courthouse was not equipped with proper protection against acts of violence and did not have security measures in place to prevent weapons from being brought into the courthouse.
After the incident, the 21st District Chief Judge ordered the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office to provide security for the courts, which was appealed. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that it is the responsibility of the county to provide a secure and protected space.
While there was not a direct order from the 14th Judicial Court for Moffat County to upgrade its courthouse, there are known security and infrastructure issues with the current courthouse. Moffat County commissioners have said they knew the day would come when Chief Judge O’Hara would issue such an order.
Routt and Grand counties, which are both in the 14th Judicial District with Moffat, were in a similar position when former Chief Judge Richard P. Doucette ordered both counties to build new courthouses the day before he left office.
In the order there were a number of deficiencies in the allotted court space that Routt County was required to remedy by Jan. 1, 2006, including having insufficient space for the three courts to operate. Routt County officials at that time understood the need for updated court space, but the county appealed Doucette’s order with the Colorado Supreme Court, stating the order couldn’t be met under the specified timeline.
The court order was eventually overturned, not due to the merit, but because a hearing wasn’t held to issue the order. The deadline to upgrade the courthouse was removed, but Routt County officials had already performed studies and decided to move forward with building a new courthouse on the west end of Steamboat.
Chief Judge O’Hara said that when he first started talking to Moffat County about the condition of its courthouse and upgrades, there was a strong pushback from previous commissioners.
“I realized the building was newer, and the commissioners were very clear with me that the county didn’t have the resources to take on that project,” O’Hara said.
County officials have worked over the years to keep the building going while O’Hara continued to meet with them to find compromises.
“I have tried to be understanding and patient about the lack of money, and they really did try to address some of the issues,” O’Hara said. “But the issues became too much.”
Safety and security for the courthouse
Because of the aging infrastructure with the 105-year-old building and patchwork remodels over the decades, there is a long list of issues with the current facility. But safety and security are top concerns.
For the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office, there is no secure drop in the back of the building for officers to bring in inmates for court appearances. County officials said there have been times when inmates’ friends and family are waiting for them outside of the courthouse.
Officers then have to escort the inmates up three very narrow staircases in the back of the courthouse to the third floor. According to O’Hara, there should be three circulation patterns for courts to operate safely — one for the public, one private for the employees and a secure one for inmates.
There is no secure path for inmates to be escorted through the current courthouse, so they walk past the jury rooms, which could potentially compromise a court case. Inmates also have to walk through the judge’s chambers and private offices to get to the holding areas to await their appearance.
Anyone going to the third-floor courts has to pass through security, which consists of one security officer and security equipment that was donated to Moffat County by another Colorado court.
If there was an immediate safety threat, security has no intercom system to alert staff and the public, only an antiquated phone system with two codes that can each page half of the building’s phone users at a time.
There are also no private waiting rooms outside of the courts, so on court days, the opposing sides of the case and witnesses have to sit together in the hall and wait to be called into the court.
“People think sometimes I am trying to provide safety for myself,” O’Hara said. “It’s so our branch of government can have a safe space to resolve disputes.”
The Moffat County Courthouse was originally built in 1917 as a white, stone brick building with a series of columns surrounding the entrance. In 1932 the entryway columns were removed because they were starting to crumble, and additions were added on the sides of the building.
There were further renovations and additions in 1962 and more in the 1980s, when the current entrance was built.
Of the 53,000 square feet in the current courthouse, only about 36,000 is usable space, and both the court and the county offices are running out of room for their operations. County courts are required to provide three courtrooms for county court, district court and family court.
There are currently two courtrooms for county and district court, and family court uses the former law library.
“Everybody was outgrowing their space — not just the courts — but also probation, and the county had to rent other offices throughout town,” O’Hara said.
The probation offices are actually in a converted auditorium with limited space and privacy for confidential meetings.
In addition to the lack of security and limited space, there are numerous accessibility concerns throughout the building that could lead to a lawsuit.
On the street-level access, there is a ramp to a dated elevator that provides access to the upper floors for wheelchair users or community members with mobility issues. Additionally, the jury seating runs afoul requirements set out in the Americans with Disabilities Act, and jury members who use wheelchairs have to sit on the floor behind the attorney tables.
The only ADA bathroom is located on the ground level of the courthouse, which leaves limited access for disabled jurors on the third floor. The building also has issues with outdated plumbing, sewer and electric systems that would have to be addressed in a remodel.
“It got to the point where the remodels got to be crazy expensive,” O’Hara said. “All of these groups did everything they could to wring every last use out of that building.”
County officials conducted studies to determine the cost and feasibility for bringing the courthouse up to date. The project would require upgrades to the existing areas and an expansion in a project that was estimated at $45 million.
The county instead opted for an alternative project to renovate the former Kmart building into a new courthouse, which would allow the county to address all of the security and safety issues at almost half of the cost.
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