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UPDATE: Defendants locked in courtrooms and public locked out du - KATC.com | Continuous News Coverage | Acadiana-Lafayette

UPDATE: Defendants locked in courtrooms and public locked out during proceedings

Posted: Updated:
Lafayette Parish Courthouse Lafayette Parish Courthouse
LAFAYETTE PARISH -

The 15th Judicial District issued a statement on Wednesday in response to KATC's story on certain Lafayette Parish courtroom restrictions, which locked defendants into courtrooms for arraignments and denied public access to those hearings.

The court attributed a problem with courtroom capacity as the reason for the restrictions, as the courthouse's largest courtroom "cannot accommodate all of the spectators on some arraignment days," according to the statement.

The restrictions had been happening in Commissioner Thomas Frederick's court and only during arraignments, where the non-elected court official faced anywhere from 150-250 defendants at each proceeding.

New procedures have since been adopted that allow defendants to enter the courtroom first and take seats in the front, after which the public will be allowed to enter as space permits. Bailiffs will still bar entry to the courtroom while the docket is called, after which it will be reopened to members of the public if space is available, according to the statement.

"To avoid any misunderstanding, Commissioner Frederick has made it clear to the bailiffs that courtroom doors are not to be locked. The Court has made every effort to guarantee the constitutional rights of defendants and accommodate the general public within the space limitations of the Lafayette Parish Courthouse," the statement reads.

According to the statement, Frederick had instructed bailiffs "to secure one of the two rear doors of the courtroom by standing at the door to manage and minimize disruption of the proceedings. The other rear door of the courtroom cannot be entered through, but has a push bar on the inside so that occupants can always exit in the case of emergency."

The two doors at the front of the court room are "never locked and can be used to exit in the case of an emergency," the statement reads.

KATC reporters have experienced these restrictions first-hand.

As recently as Jan. 31, and on multiple occasions dating back to last summer, bailiffs were checking ID from every person who sought to enter the courtroom, and those who weren't on the docket were not allowed to enter at any point during the proceeding.

Once inside, neither defendants nor spectators were free to exit the courtroom at will. The entry door was locked, and the two unlocked doors near the judge's bench are not for general public use.

One of the doors is used only by court officials and lawyers. The other door is where defendants exit only after facing the judge.

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UPDATE: The Lafayette Fire Department and ACLU of Louisiana have responded to KATC's report on courtroom restrictions in Lafayette.

On Tuesday, we reported on how Commissioner Thomas Frederick, who presides over arraignments in the 15th Judicial District, is restricting public access to those proceedings and locking defendants in the courtroom once the hearings begin.

Alton Trahan, with the Lafayette Fire Department, said the department on Wednesday was measuring all courtrooms in the Lafayette Parish courthouse to clearly determine the capacity in each room.

There's some conflicting ideas about the capacity in each court room, he said, so obtaining and communicating that official number will help judges and bailiffs understand how many people can be admitted.

Trahan said the Fire Department is also working to set up a meeting with Commissioner Frederick about what can and cannot be done in a court room, including the issues with locking doors during proceedings.

In a statement, Louisiana ACLU director Marjorie Esman called on Frederick to halt the practice.

"The people of Lafayette are entitled to a public trial, just as they are anywhere else. Barring all entry to the courtroom not only violates the defendants' 6th Amendment right to a public trial, it also violates the 1st Amendment rights of any members of the public and media who wish to witness the proceedings. Commissioner Fredrick should abandon this practice immediately out of respect for the Constitution he is sworn to uphold," Esman wrote.

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Accused criminals are being locked into courtrooms in Lafayette Parish and the public is being locked out.

Gayle Cormier was accompanying her sister to her arraignment in January but was not allowed in.

"I was highly upset and my sister is really scared and I am here to support her and that is not going to happen today," Cormier said.

A bailiff stands at the door of Commissioner Thomas Frederick's courtroom with the arraignment docket. They highlight defendants names as they arrive and turn everyone else away.

Once court begins, the entry door is locked. As a defendant's name is called, the accused must walk past the attorneys tables, speak with Commissioner Frederick and only then can they exit through the door near his bench.

Alton Trahan with the Lafayette Fire Department said this practice violates the fire code.

"In case there's an emergency, people have to exit out," Trahan said. "For the most part, people will exit the way they entered. What we are finding incidents that happen and things like that, everyone piles up at that door and no one can think about unlocking the door, because why? It should be unlocked." 

Trahan said it would be acceptable as far as the fire code goes to have the door locked from the outside if there was panic hardware on the door. Panic hardware is the bar on some doors that people can push to open it from the inside. He said it however is not acceptable to have a thumb lock, which is similar to a deadbolt, on the door which would not allow anyone to get in or out if it was locked. 
  
With more than 150 people on January's arraignment docket and more than 250 on February's, the court proceedings can last hours. 

"I'm just going to sit in the hall and wait for her to come out," Cormier said. "I mean it's an open court, so I should be able to go in there. Everyone should be able to go in there."

UL professor Dr. William Davie agrees. He said in certain circumstances, it can be a violation of constitutional rights.

He said the obvious reasons for the restrictions would be a lack of room in the courtroom or to avoid a chaotic atmosphere. Even so, he was surprised by the measures being taken by Commissioner Frederick.

"The court has to make it clear why they are taking this measure," Davie said. "It can't be just a willy-nilly extemporaneous act to show the judge is in charge."

We reached out to Commissioner Frederick. He said he was unable to speak on the record with KATC, because judges are restricted from giving media interviews.

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