MACHIAS, Maine — An ongoing flap over security arrangements at a county-owned complex of buildings has forced the county commissioners to seek legal advice.
The dispute centers on who is actually responsible for security at the complex, which includes the county courthouse.
Washington County commissioners expressed their displeasure last week that the state of Maine has inserted itself into what they believe to be county operations.
“We have a problem here,” Commissioner Kevin Shorey said. He directed the county manager to get a legal determination from the county’s attorney about the security issues.
State officials have determined that Maine judicial marshals will be responsible for security of all courts, even though it is costing 10 times what it cost the county, according to Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith. Smith, who brought the issue to the commissioners’ attention, said his budget for court security was $5,000 annually, but since the state took it over two years ago, the cost jumped to $50,000 a year.
Smith told the commissioners this week that the marshals have taken over security for not only courtrooms but the entire courthouse by locking entrances, prohibiting easy access, using the jail for a handicapped entrance and even arresting one man.
Shorey called the takeover “absolutely wrong.”
Smith said no one disputes that security is needed for Maine’s courtrooms. What is at issue in Machias, however, is the blocking of access by marshals to other county offices.
“We have had a lot of complaints from the public,” Smith said. “This is not just a courthouse, and people need and are entitled to access to the other offices. It comes down to an issue of court security versus building security.”
The courthouse includes superior and district courtrooms, court clerks’ offices, the county commissioners’ office, the county manager’s office, registry of deeds and probate court and offices and a public restroom.
The marshals have been locking the rear entrance and setting up a security scanner just inside the front entrance, requiring everyone who comes into the building, even for noncourt business, to go through the security scanner.
Sharon Strout, the registrar of deeds, said a judge approached her office — which has a separate outside entrance to the building — with his concern that the rear entrance from the parking area to the building was locked.
“I didn’t argue with him, though. I let him in,” she said, referring to a nonpublic basement entrance to the courthouse.
Strout said even though the back door is locked, no one is watching it and people who have already gone through security clearance at the front entrance can easily push the door open from the inside and let others inside.
Michael Coty, director of Maine’s Judicial Marshals, said Tuesday that state statute requires him to provide security “for the court and court premises,” which includes the entire courthouse. He said every security agency recommends having a single entrance. “Entry screening is for the protection of a building,” he said, “not a single room.”
Smith said one man, a local businessman, was arrested recently after he came through the front door, saw the security scanner and told the marshals he needed to return to his car. He informed them he had a concealed weapons permit and was carrying a weapon. He planned to store it in his car while he went to the probate court office.
He was arrested, Smith said, and the charges were later dropped.
Earlier in the year, a private investigator also was arrested entering the building with a properly permitted concealed weapon. Smith said neither man was given the opportunity to secure his weapon and then re-enter the courthouse. Neither man was headed to a courtroom.
“This really needs to be cleared up,” Smith said.
But Coty said those two incidents are perfect examples of why the security is in place and why all visitors are funneled through one entrance. “Who knows what the intent of those persons are in the courthouse? What if someone else with bad intentions gets ahold of that legitimately permitted weapon?,” he said. “Our goal is to keep the public, the judge and the citizens safe.”