Magistrate courtrooms warrant better security

Seven years is more than enough time to figure out how to provide adequate security for Beaufort County's magistrate courtrooms.

County officials should get the job done. Magistrates handle a wide variety of cases, some of them ripe for emotions and tempers to run high. They include traffic violations, eviction notices and restraining orders.

Worries about security were raised in 2005 when the Solicitor's Office moved out of the county's Arthur Horne building and into the secure main courthouse. That sent the Magistrate Court to the Arthur Horne building, which doesn't have the metal detectors and other security measures found at the courthouse. The office building where Magistrate's Court is held in Myrtle Park off Bluffton Parkway also lacks this level of security.

In his budget request, Chief Magistrate Rod Sproatt has asked for $129,000 to hire three constables to provide security. Tight-fisted budgeting might make that hard, if not impossible to get, but county officials should be prepared to spend some money on this important issue, and they should look for other ways to secure these courtrooms.

That could include, as Sheriff P.J. Tanner suggested in December, moving the Probate Court out of the main courthouse and moving the Magistrate's Court back in. Probate Court cases have a lower risk for violence.

If the county-owned federal courthouse becomes available, that's another venue that could be tapped for some office shuffling.

But neither of those possibilities helps the situation in the Bluffton courtroom. Magistrate Court administrator Stephanie Garst said police had to be called to the courtroom recently when an irate defendant began shouting and staff couldn't calm him.

Two weeks earlier, Garst said, word spread that someone brought a gun into the building. While the report turned out to be false, magistrate judges and staff had to lock themselves in a windowless conference room while an officer searched the building.

The public and court employees deserve better than this. This should be a priority. Seven years is long enough to come up with a solution.