Now board-ing at Baltimore courthouses

Airport-style technology helps those wandering lost in the halls of justice

May 07, 2002|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

The scene plays out routinely in Baltimore Circuit Court: A defendant shows up late for an arraignment and tells an irate judge he was across the street at the "other" courthouse by mistake.

Or the defendant insists he was in the right building all along - but got lost.

With the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse on the west side of Calvert Street and Courthouse East across from it - not to mention 35 courtrooms spread out over several floors in both buildings - it's no wonder people show up late for court on a daily basis.

Electronic boards recently installed on the first floor of each courthouse could help ease tardiness. Those boards and others that will be installed in the state's juvenile justice center cost just over $86,000.

The boards in the Circuit Court buildings list the current day's criminal, district and civil dockets, defendants' names in alphabetical order, case numbers, courtroom and building - there's an E for East and an M for Mitchell.

Plans also call for assigning a staff person to each board to provide additional assistance.

There's already a question as to whether the boards, which resemble arrival and departure screens at airports, will really help people get to court on time.

"This is my first time in court," Joseph Anderson, 25, said as he scanned the boards. "It helped me out a lot. I didn't know what courtroom I was supposed to be in."

About 10 minutes later, Anderson was roaming the halls of Courthouse East, searching for his destination. "I know the room. I just gotta find it now," he said.

Both courthouses are tricky to navigate, to say the least. When elevator doors open, signs tell which way to go for even-numbered rooms and for odd-numbered rooms. But just when you think you're close to your courtroom, you suddenly find yourself scratching your head.

"Sometimes the numbers skip on you," said Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway. "You might be looking for a particular number, and you follow it in sequence and it's just not there, because the number you're looking for may be on a side corridor or something like that."

And nothing could be more frustrating to people than finally finding their courtroom only to be greeted with a sign that the judge is using another judge's chambers that day.

Courthouse workers complain about tardiness because it slows the judicial process and prompts some judges to issue FTA's - Failure To Appear notices. Sometimes late-comers disrupt court proceedings when they casually saunter up to bailiffs to state their reasons for being late or to ask whether their case has already been called.

"It's a terrible thing to have to go to court, and even worse if you're worried someone will put a warrant out on you because you don't show up," said Judge Thomas Waxter.

Of course, some people don't get lost or go to the wrong building; they just ignore their summons to appear in court. Administrative Law Judge Ellen Heller, who spearheaded the project, hopes the electronic boards will cut down on the confusion at both courthouses.

"An attorney from Montgomery County said every time he comes to the city and to the Baltimore Circuit Court he gets lost," Heller said. "So, you can imagine if an attorney who's used to a courthouse has difficulty finding his/her way, then an individual who is unfamiliar ... has an even greater difficulty."

Heller said she tries to give defendants the benefit of the doubt.

"I understand when people come in and say they were late because they got lost," Heller said. "Having two courthouses is confusing, and sometimes information on the summonses is incorrect."

It's too early to tell whether the electronic boards will cut down on confusion. So far they're getting mixed reviews.

Some courthouse employees think the boards are too small or question their position in the buildings. In Courthouse East, the boards are across from the elevators just inside the Calvert Street entrance, so they're easy to find.

However, in the Mitchell building, they're farther away and could be overlooked by people who turn right to take the steps - after going through metal detectors - rather than going left to get to the elevators.

Still, sheriff's deputies are making it a point to mention the board to those entering the courthouse. And many visitors think they might help.

"It's nice to be able to walk in the courthouse and find out where you're supposed to be, rather than wandering the halls for a half-hour and being late," said Gill Cochran, an Annapolis lawyer, who met a client standing under the boards recently. "The [east] building is very confusing."

Bruce J. Heidebrecht, who works in the state police crime lab, was in the East Courthouse recently to testify in a case.

"I'm just making sure the case hasn't changed times or courtrooms," Heidebrecht said. "The boards are a great idea. You come in, you check the board and there it is. It actually reminds me a lot of the airport."

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