Cook County judges fume over security checks at courthouse
BY ROBERT HERGUTH AND DANE PLACKO September 17, 2013 9:38PM
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart
Updated: September 18, 2013 12:12AM
Judges are supposed to maintain an even-tempered demeanor on the bench.
But off the bench, there appears to be a different standard at Chicago’s Leighton Criminal Court Building — where judges are so resistant to new security procedures at the outdoor lot where they park, they are sometimes angrily refusing to comply with Cook County Sheriff’s officers staffing the post, a review by the Better Government Association and Fox 32 found.
Until this past spring, judges and others using the fenced-in, razor wire-lined lot at 26th and California were able to breeze through a checkpoint staffed by the sheriff’s office.
Beginning in April, new procedures required everyone driving into the courts complex, including judges, to show their identification and open their trunks on the way in and out of the lot — creating a slight inconvenience, but bringing greater peace of mind knowing that inmates are in the courthouse every day and that Cook County Jail sits next door, according to the sheriff’s office.
Even so, the changes haven’t gone over well with many judges — some suspect that Sheriff Tom Dart instituted the new procedures not to enhance safety but to tweak Chief Judge Timothy Evans, with whom he’s been feuding.
While some judges are refusing to pop their trunks because they view such demands as an unwarranted invasion of privacy, others said they oppose the security changes because they don’t seem logical.
“Why are you checking [trunks] in the morning? Am I bringing in someone to escape?” one judge said in an interview, asking not to be quoted by name.
Some judges also have resisted showing their IDs to sheriff’s personnel on their way in and out of the lot.
This has made for some contentious encounters, including one in July when Judge Stanley Sacks was leaving for the day and refused to produce his identification — and then called 911 from his cellphone when he was told that he wouldn’t be allowed to leave the lot until he complied.
Sacks told the BGA he called 911 and relayed that he was being “unlawfully restrained.”
Another officer realized what was going on and let Sacks out before Chicago Police responded, Sacks said.
“He wouldn’t let me out. Was I going to sit there all night?” Sacks said.
Sacks also routinely refuses to open his trunk, but he said he’ll start doing so if Dart can explain how a prisoner was able to sneak a large knifelike object into a courtroom bathroom in May. The “shank” was discovered before it could be used. The inmate allegedly was planning to stab a prosecutor. Sacks said the incident represents such a bad breach of security it was the “tipping point” for him — he was emboldened to resist the new security requirements placed on judges.
Ben Breit, a spokesman for Dart, said the fact that sheriff’s personnel recovered the weapon before it could be used showed that the agency did its job.
Either way, Sacks wasn’t alone in vocally resisting security requirements. Incident reports kept by the sheriff’s office, and obtained by the BGA and Fox under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, indicated that:
◆ Judge Dennis Porter used the f-word in front of a sheriff’s officer while a passenger in a car driven by another judge on June 19. Sheriff’s paperwork had Porter saying, “I am the same judge I was this f - - - - - - morning. F - - - you.” But Porter said in an interview he didn’t say that. He acknowledged using the f-word but said it was out of exasperation and wasn’t directed at the officer. Porter said the officer also used profanity. Either way, the judge said he sought him out later and apologized.
◆ Judge James Linn refused to show his ID or open his trunk more than a dozen times in May and June, on one occasion telling an officer, “This is f - - - - - - ridiculous.” In an interview, Linn would say only, “I have no problems with the sheriff’s department. . . . I appreciate all they do to protect us every day.”
◆ Judge Peggy Chiampas refused several times to open her trunk for inspection by an officer, once reportedly yelling, “Do you have a warrant? Without a warrant, I will never open my trunk.” When the BGA reached her on the phone in recent days, Chiampas screamed at a reporter for calling her on her cellphone and hung up.
Overall, roughly a dozen judges — about a quarter of the judges in the courthouse any given day — are listed in sheriff’s office paperwork as being verbally abusive or otherwise uncooperative in regards to the security changes, records show.
Judges interviewed by the BGA said one of their main beefs is that the reasoning behind the security changes was not articulated.
While Dart’s aides have had conversations with select judges about this issue, several letters sent to Evans by the sheriff appear to have gone unanswered, records show.
Evans, who was recently re-elected chief judge by his colleagues, released the following written statement late Tuesday:
“When I learned of these new security procedures, I alerted our judges to the new procedures and asked them to adhere to them.
“When I was informed about these incident reports, I immediately reached out to the judges. Their recollections do not comport with what the Sheriff claims occurred.
“However, the judges also told me that they were very concerned that the Sheriff does not uniformly enforce his new security procedures. He stops judges but not UPS trucks or other vehicles.
“Especially after the horrible tragedy . . . in our nation’s capital, the Sheriff’s inconsistent application of his own security procedures is of even greater concern to me and the judges at 26th and California.”
Dart’s office countered with this statement:
“Judge Evans’ reaction is puzzling given that the only response we received was from judges who felt they shouldn’t be subjected to any security measures.”
Breit said the need for tighter security was realized after a broader security review. The judicial parking lot, the scene of an inmate escape some years back, was deemed too porous. He noted that all vehicle entry points to the court and jail complex now have the same security requirements. And he said Dart’s troubles with Evans — they’ve been at odds about the efficiency of the courts and crowding at the jail — had nothing to do with the decision-making on security.
While trunks aren’t searched in off-site parking areas used by the general public, visitors trying to enter the main building are often greeted by long lines leading to metal detectors, where sheriff’s police demand that visitors empty pockets and strip off belts temporarily.
Evans recently barred visitors from bringing in cellphones out of concern that gang members were snapping photos of witnesses, jurors or police in the courtrooms and corridors of the building.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth and Fox 32’s Dane Placko.