The county's top prosecutor and an assistant public defender lodged formal complaints Friday against a Municipal Court judge who ordered bailiffs to lock his courtroom, pat down spectators for weapons and check their names against court records for outstanding warrants.
Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury and the public defender's office criticized Judge Steven E. Hintz for ordering the search without just cause and said they believed the action was illegal.
The search took place Thursday afternoon, two days after Hintz had signs posted outside Courtroom 12, where preliminary hearings are conducted. The computer-generated signs said in English and Spanish, "WARNING! If you enter this courtroom you consent to search of your person and property and agree to provide identification."
The signs are similar to those posted outside the courthouse, which warn that bringing unregistered weapons into the courthouse is illegal and that anyone entering the building is consenting to a search.
But Hintz's actions departed radically from those in county and federal courthouses in Los Angeles, where officials routinely check everyone entering the buildings if they trigger metal detectors. Ventura County officials have no plans to set up metal detectors at the courthouse because they say there are too many entrances to make it practical.
Hintz said Friday that he ordered the action "to put everyone on additional notice that they might be searched."
The judge said there was no specific threat or incident that prompted the search. But he added that court rules allow him to keep his courtroom safe for witnesses, defendants and staff by checking spectators for weapons and outstanding warrants.
"The plain fact is that we're dealing with a clientele that is a little different from the group of people you might see, say, at a mall," Hintz said.
Hintz said he ordered the courtroom cleared of lawyers and police officers, then turned it over to his bailiffs and left.
Cmdr. John Kingsley, chief of the sheriff's courts division, said bailiffs checked about 20 spectators with hand-held metal detectors, then demanded that they show identification. Courtroom clerks ran the spectators' names through courthouse computers to check for outstanding arrest warrants, he said.
One woman was detained briefly on a possible warrant but was soon released when the court records proved to be incorrect, Hintz said.
The search drew immediate, harsh criticism from Bradbury, who said Hintz "just wanted to test the fire alarm," and Assistant Public Defender Duane Dammeyer, who called it unconstitutional.
"We're extremely concerned about it," said Bradbury, who lodged a complaint with Presiding Municipal Court Judge Lee E. Cooper Jr. "One of our victims was searched for absolutely no reason. Here, they're victimized by crooks and come to court to testify and get locked in a courtroom and searched, and apparently a records check was run."
Dammeyer, who said the search violated the spectators' constitutional rights against warrantless searches, also filed a formal complaint with the presiding judge. The complaint noted that court rules allow spectators to leave the building if they don't want to be searched, an option that was not offered those searched Thursday.
Dammeyer added that he hopes to learn from Cooper "whether this is a new procedure that's been instituted or if this is a rogue judge out there doing this on his own."
Carol Sobel, senior staff counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles, said Hintz has the right to order searches of courtroom spectators. But, she said, requiring spectators to identify themselves "is not only a violation of the right of privacy of those people, but it infringes on the defendant's right to a public trial."
Hintz said Cooper consented to Thursday's mass search and warrant check. And Hintz called it "a trial run" that could be repeated later, although perhaps in a different fashion.
Hintz said the search did not go exactly as he had planned. He had wanted the spectators to be searched once they were seated inside the courtroom, or allowed to leave. But he said Kingsley preferred to have people searched as they walked into the courtroom and not allowed to leave until they were searched.
Estimates vary on how long the search and records check lasted: Dammeyer said 30 to 35 minutes, and Kingsley said 15 minutes.
The doors were locked from the outside to keep outsiders from disturbing the search, but they could have been opened by anyone inside who wanted to leave, Hintz said. The judge said that he formulated the search plan with help from the sheriff's office and that Cooper approved it.
Cooper could not be reached for comment Friday.
Kingsley said, "We did it at the request of Judge Hintz," but he declined to discuss it further.