Courthouse crowds forced to wait hours in frigid weather

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on January 7, 2014 at 2:44 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jan 7 at 7:21 PM

HOUSTON—An elevator outage kept hundreds of citizens standing outdoors for hours in long lines wrapping around the Harris County Criminal Courthouse on the coldest day of the winter.

Frustrated crowds routinely form outside the poorly designed courthouse, notorious for its inadequate elevator capacity.  But Tuesday, deputies say, most of the elevators stopped operating during the morning rush for defendants and lawyers trying to make their court appearances.

As a result, some people complained they stood in line more than three hours, shivering in near freezing temperatures.

“I spotted the line a couple of blocks down,” said Rob Roy, who kept his hands stuffed in the pockets of a hoodie for warmth.  “I was hesitant about coming, but I need to be here.”

Aggravating the problem was the cumbersome process of people removing their overcoats and scarves before passing through metal detectors.  Security personnel struggling to regulate the crowd leading to the elevators occasionally brought the metal detector lines to a halt, leaving visitors who had already removed their coats and put them on conveyor belts shivering in the frigid temperatures.

“I feel like this ain’t right to a bunch of people that got to go to court,” said Troy Gordwin, one of the people bundled up against the cold weather outside the courthouse. “Whatever kind of problem they got, they need to fix that.”

The trouble started with a false fire alarm that caused all of the courthouse elevators to stop operating, county officials said. Houston firefighters had to come to the courthouse and confirm it was a false alarm. Some of the elevators were out of service for more than an hour, but the delay during the morning rush hour turned the usually long line into the most maddening back-up courthouse regulars had ever seen.

The crowds wrapped around the courthouse Tuesday were just the latest testament to an ongoing problem, especially on Monday and Tuesday mornings when defendants show up for crowded docket calls.  Citizens caught waiting in line outside the courthouse have literally gone to jail because the county hasn’t taken steps to solve the problems with its badly designed building.    

“It’s annoying,” said Priscilla Bush, an attorney standing in line outside the courthouse. “The elevator situation is really bad.  It’s not unusual to wait thirty minutes for an elevator to show up.  It makes it difficult for these people, especially, to get to their courtrooms because if they’re late, they risk going to jail.  So it’s a big deal.”

Defense attorneys have long complained that irate judges routinely order defendants jailed because they’re late for court appearances due to the lines outside the courthouse doors.

“Oh, yeah,” Bush said. “Sure.  We’ve all had clients jailed because of this line.”

Some attorneys have suggested judges could exercise some crowd control by staggering their docket calls.  But jurists have a limited incentive to solve the problem for a simple reason:  They can walk into the building through a back entrance and ride a private elevator.

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