Editorial: Riverhead courthouse a disaster waiting to happen

There are so many things wrong with what passes for a “courthouse” in Riverhead that it’s hard to know where to begin describing them. The place is a tragedy waiting to happen. 

Walking through the tiny offices jammed with files, where paperwork is stacked on every available surface, and seeing the prisoner holding area, which has a door at one end that judges use to enter the building after parking their cars, leaves a visitor with the impression that all of this is taking place in a very poor, terribly disadvantaged country whose leaders don’t know any better.

Yes, you read that right: the judges enter the courthouse through a door that leads into the prisoner holding area. They walk right by the benches where the prisoners sit. To make matters worse, anyone at all can park behind the building where the judges park and watch them come and go.

In the age of violent gangs such as MS-13, the security in the Riverhead courthouse is beyond unacceptable. We could easily make the case that it is dangerous, and that everyone who works in or comes to the courthouse is at risk.

The employees who toil faithfully in the court offices are also at risk that an overloaded filing cabinet — on top of which are piles of official records in boxes stacked to the ceiling — will fall over on them. There is hardly a place to sit that isn’t covered with records. And this isn’t, say, the building or the parks department — this is a courthouse, in a country governed by the rule of law.

To say the least, these documents are important.

On Tuesday morning, two officers manned a metal detector at the main entrance as dozens of defendants and others arrived for the calendar call. On days when the calendar is packed, dozens of people can stand on the other side of the metal detector, unsearched, because the hallway is too crowded.

Defense lawyers, after filing an Article 78 court proceeding, were provided with a room to meet their clients. It is the size of a coffin and barely affords a modicum of privacy. Keep in mind the American concept of lawyer-client privilege. This room is also stacked with boxes of records piled to the ceiling. Additional boxes that were removed from this room now sit under the first row of benches in the courtroom. The courtroom itself is a filing cabinet.

So lawyers whisper with their clients in the hallway, or down by the bathrooms, with officers, prospective jurors and witnesses walking by them. We can’t imagine any administrative judge, for the county or New York State, finding anything right about this situation. It screams “unconstitutional.”

“There is no privacy at all,” said Daniel Rodgers, a defense lawyer from Southampton. “We can’t represent people in the proper way. And it’s gone from bad to worse. The safety issue is absolutely number one. It is actually frightening it is so bad.”
Steven DeVito, a Legal Aid Society lawyer, said: “There isn’t even a jury room here. So when a jury is out on deliberations, they stay in the courtroom and everyone else has to leave.”

The Riverhead Town Board needs to listen to what Justices Allen Smith and Lori Hulse recommended last week: convert the Route 58 armory building into a police and justice court building. This idea has been discussed before, and been abandoned because of the cost. The state gave the town the armory for this purpose.

At an estimated $13 million, and put out in a bond, converting the armory into a courthouse and police building would seem to be the smartest way forward as opposed to building a new structure from scratch. Still, it’s a lot of money. And this in a town waiting on a check for land EPCAL that has yet to arrive.