It’s already a felony to attack judges, court employees and county clerks doing their jobs in Washington state.
Now lawmakers want to make it a felony to assault anyone else at a courthouse, too.
Recognizing that many people who visit courthouses are stressed out or scared, Republicans and Democrats in Olympia have introduced bills in the House and Senate that would automatically elevate charges of fourth-degree assault — a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail — to third-degree assault, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, when an attack happens at a courthouse.
The measures also would give judges the option of imposing extra time behind bars for more serious assaults.
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“Courthouses by their very nature are dangerous places,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson testified during a hearing in the House last week. “We believe all citizens should have equal protection as they access our courts — victims, witnesses, jurors and family members.”
Two cases in Washington state in the past year highlight how volatile people can be when they’re in the courthouse, Ferguson said.
Last March, a man shot a Grays Harbor County sheriff’s deputy with her own weapon at the courthouse in Montesano, then stabbed a judge who tried to save her. And last month, a man assaulted a plainclothes police detective at a courthouse in Kent after the detective asked him to stop intimidating witnesses.
Posting signs warning people that they could face enhanced penalties for an assault could help deter courthouse violence, Ferguson argued.
Though courthouse attacks remain rare, he referenced a report by a Minnesota-based company that provides court-security consulting to suggest such incidents are on the rise nationally.
“Working in law enforcement, I’ve seen firsthand the tension and frustration some people feel when accessing our justice system,” said a statement from Republican Rep. Mike Hope, a Seattle police officer and co-sponsor of the House bill. “This bill will send a message that no matter how upset one might be, violence is not acceptable in our courthouses.”
Typically, the degrees of assault are defined by how much harm is done. Fourth degree is an assault that does not cause bodily harm, while third-degree causes some harm or is an assault on certain classes of people, including judicial officers, police, nurses and bus drivers.
The measures have support from law enforcement and advocates for victims, but one actual victim of courthouse violence said he opposes it.
Larry Jefferson, a public defender in Thurston County, testified on behalf of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and told House Public Safety Committee members about how he once was punched by a 21-year-old, mentally distressed client during jury selection.
He was mad about it, he said, but he also said he sympathized with people who might erupt in court.
“I represent people who are charged with sexual-assault crimes — sometimes I win,” he said. “I have a daughter. How would I feel if someone won a case … where I knew this guy had raped my daughter? I would be hot!
“We do not want to criminalize that person and make them a felon because they are so upset about what’s happened. The ground you stand on should not determine what the crime is — it should be based on the harm.”
But Tom McBride, head of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said the harm is greater when an attack takes place in a courthouse.
“If we want people to resolve their differences by the rules at a courthouse,” he said, “we need to make that a place that everybody’s comfortable coming to.”