Docket, car lot crammed Court-goers forced to hurry up, wait in Ellicott City

February 14, 1993|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

Preston Pairo Jr. stands outside the Howard District Court building in Ellicott City, amazed by the flood of vehicles jamming the parking lot.

Dozens of people -- defendants, lawyers, police officers, witnesses and spectators -- rush to the building to get to court on time.

And then they wait.

Welcome to the daily jam of criminal, civil and traffic cases that clogs the parking lot and the courtrooms at District Court.

"It really is ridiculous," said Mr. Pairo, an Ellicott City lawyer. "I just feel so sorry for those poor people."

Mr. Pairo is one of several lawyers in the county talking about ways to improve the District Court system so people who come '' for hearings can get in and out of court faster.

The group suggests that cases be scheduled every two hours throughout the day -- rather than in two blocks of time, as is done now -- to ease the court's gridlock.

But James Vaughan, the District Court's administrative judge, said he will not act on the group's suggestion because he does not believe it would work.

"We're not going to do it," Judge Vaughan said. "It's much easier to suggest that than to put it into practice."

For about two years, the issue has been on the agenda of the Howard County Bench-Bar Liaison, a group of legal professionals who discuss issues facing the county's courthouses.

Criminal, traffic and civil cases are set for hearings in the building's four courtrooms at 8:45 a.m. or 1:15 p.m. As many as 100 traffic and criminal cases -- many with different sets of defendants, lawyers, witnesses and police officers -- are scheduled at the same time.

"There's no room to sit in the courtrooms. There's no room to park outside," Mr. Pairo said. "Everybody is jammed."

Fred Silverstein, an Ellicott City lawyer and member of the group, said people would not come to court at the same time and compete for a limited number of parking spaces if cases were scheduled throughout the day.

In addition, police officers, lawyers and parties involved in cases would not have to wait hours for their turn before one of the court's four judges, Mr. Silverstein said.

County police officials believe the staggered schedules would benefit officers based on initial studies of the proposal, department spokesman Gary Gardner said.

The department now has to call officers from administrative offices, such as the crime prevention unit, to fill patrol rosters when court is in session, Sergeant Gardner said.

"Many times, all our officers have to show up at the same time twice a day," the sergeant said. "Then they sit there until their case is called."

But Judge Vaughan said he doesn't think the caseload justifies a staggered schedule. Even on busy days, the morning docket is cleared by about 11:30 a.m., while the afternoon docket is finished by about 3:30 p.m., he said.

The District Court handled 16,852 traffic cases, 15,106 civil cases and 4,341 criminal cases during the 1991-1992 fiscal year, according to state statistics.

Switching to a staggered schedule, Judge Vaughan said, simply means the courtrooms and parking lot would be crowded throughout the day.

Sandra Lally, assistant chief clerk at District Court headquarters in Annapolis, said the computer that manages the schedule for the court is not able to stagger cases throughout the day. She noted, however, that the computer program could add a third session.

A North Laurel woman who had to wait more than an hour for her case to be called in traffic court Thursday morning said she likes the idea of staggering cases, but cautioned that the system could still pose problems.

"It might help if they didn't get backlogged," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "You still couldn't find a parking space if the people from before didn't leave yet."

Judge Vaughan said a better solution for the parking problem would be to build a larger parking lot.

Thomas Barwick, manager of the Multi-Service Center that houses District Court, said the state is negotiating with the county to buy land for a larger parking lot.

But Mr. Pairo said it could be years before the parking lot is built because of the state's fiscal woes.

The center, which houses such busy agencies as the Parole and Probation Office and the Department of Social Services, was built in 1982 with 250 parking spaces. However, those offices employ about 265 full- and part-time workers.

At court time, the building's parking lot resembles the Baltimore Beltway at rush hour.

Dozens of motorists drive up and down the lanes in search of a space, with most coming up empty. Many are left to park on Martha Bush Drive or Court House Drive, nearly a quarter-mile away.

Some park illegally, creating their own spaces in the parking lot or blocking fire hydrants. These motorists risk getting a parking ticket, opening the possibility that they would have to appear in court again.

Mr. Pairo admits that he regularly parks his white Mercedes-Benz sedan illegally. When the attorney went to the courthouse Thursday morning, he parked under a no-parking sign.

"It's parked in a no-parking zone every day," said Mr. Pairo. "I'll be perfectly frank with you, I have to park illegally -- unless I get here at 8 o'clock."

When Mr. Pairo left the courthouse, his parking space was snatched up by a Sykesville woman who had spent a half-hour looking for a space while her husband appeared in traffic court.

"I've been driving around here since [8:45 a.m.] trying to find a parking space," said the woman. "It's unreal."

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