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Wayne courtroom signs raise concern over public access

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — Wayne County Circuit Court’s chief judge is ordering an investigation into some hastily posted signs at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice that have raised concerns about public access to courtrooms.

A sign posted at Frank Murphy Hall of Justice on Thursday.

On the door leading into the courtroom of Wayne Circuit Judge Thomas Cameron, a sign warned visitors: “You must have a valid MI driver license, or a valid state ID to enter this court room.” The sign has since been removed.

Just before entering the neighboring former courtroom of Judge Megan Maher Brennan, on the fourth floor of Frank Murphy downtown, another sign reads: “No one under the age of 18 is permitted in the courtroom without permission. You may be asked to show identification.” It also lists clothing restrictions banning, for instance, shorts, tube tops and sweat pants.

Wayne State University constitutional law professor Robert Sedler said asking court visitors to show identification is unconstitutional.

“It would violate their First Amendment ... the ability of the public to attend public proceedings,” Sedler said Thursday. “What are they looking for? What’s their justification?”

Sedler said the request is “unreasonable” because the problem is some people might not have a driver’s license or state identification.

Chief Circuit Judge Robert Colombo Jr., said Thursday he is ordering a review of the computer-printed signs after The Detroit News asked about them.

“I am very concerned about a sign where you have to present a valid (identification),” Colombo said. “The court is supposed to be open, and the public is supposed to have access to courtrooms.”

Colombo said he takes no issue with restricting courtroom access to children because of the sometimes graphic and violent nature of testimony.

Wayne Circuit Judge Craig Strong’s courtroom had a sign recently restricting access to teens 17 and younger. A staff member for the judge said Strong made the request during a recent rape case involving a teen victim who didn’t want to feel embarrassed during proceedings by other teens who might be visiting the courtroom.

“This is not a usual practice,” Strong said.

Local defense attorney Gabi Silver blasted the rules.

“I think it’s terrible. These are public courtrooms,” Silver said. “Since when did people need identification to get into a courtroom?”

Cameron was not available for comment Thursday, but a Wayne County deputy in his courtroom said recently that forcing members of the public to show identification is legal and it is a practice the court conducts in some instances. The deputy said the rules apply in special circumstances but declined to say what they were.

Sign at Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit Aug. 25, 2016.

Who posted the signs?

It is unclear whether the signs were ordered by judges or whether they were posted by deputies.

“While our sheriff’s deputies provide the security for Frank Murphy Hall Justice, this particular question should be forwarded to the court administrator,” said Kelly Miner, spokeswoman for the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, in an email Thursday.

Court rules for Wayne County do not address identification requirements or age restrictions in courtrooms.

Trial attorney Arnold Reed, who also has tried cases in Frank Murphy, said he could see that asking for identification to enter a courtroom “would cause a lot of outrage,” but warned “the motivating factor behind it has to be assessed.”

Reed, whose office is based in Farmington Hills, said courtrooms can be a “boiling plate” of emotions and can in some cases be unsafe.

“If the measure is to curtail and identify individuals who wish to cause others harm I can see a situation to know who they are,” Reed said. “You’re walking into a courtroom which can be a hotbed of emotions. (Courtroom spectators) are standing next to someone who has killed your brother or sister.”

Reed cautioned against a “rush to judgment because we need to be able to assess the particular context in which these requirements are arrived at.”

Where to draw the line?

Reed, who is African-American, said the identification requirements should not be compared to identification requirements for voting. He said the identification requirement does not violate constitutional rights when there is an “overriding interest in protecting the courtroom” and the public.

Defense attorney Lillian Diallo said the restriction on some courtrooms was prompted by a recent trial during which suspected gang members showed up as courtroom spectators. Still, Diallo said, such a rule is wrong and “you can’t enforce that.”

She said she sees no problem putting some limits on children in the courtroom.

“They need to be in school,” Diallo said. “Instead of being served a menu of havoc and chaos (in the courtroom).”

In Oakland County, officials say there are no restrictions on entering courtrooms.

“Courtrooms are public places,” Oakland County Court Administrator Kevin Oeffner said. “There are no such restrictions at all.”

The only time people would not be allowed in a courtroom is if they disrupt the proceedings, but even in that case, Oeffner said, it is up to the judge to decide whether to remove them from the courtroom.

Oeffner said Oakland County adheres to adopted local court rules that are amended from time to time. But when there are changes, there is a public notice for them.

There is no requirement to show any form of identification at the Macomb County Circuit Court, say officials there.

“There are no age restrictions for entry into the courthouse,” said John Nizol, the county’s legal services director.

According to Michigan court rules, access to courtrooms and proceedings should not be limited.

“Except as otherwise provided by statute or court rule, a court may not limit access by the public to a court proceeding ... ,” the rules read.

The rules do allow for some exceptions including instances where “a party has filed a written motion that identifies the specific interest to be protected, or the court ... has identified a specific interest to be protected, and the court determines that the interest outweighs the right of access ... .”

For court watcher Linda Lowe, a Detroit resident, the practice is puzzling.

“The public needs to be able to get inside,” said Lowe. She added everyone should always carry identification on them, but still questioned why they have to show it when going inside a courtroom.

bwilliams@detroitnews.com

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