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Big Island courthouse closures begin Oct. 1

The shutdown at three part-time facilities is blamed on a shortage of deputy sheriffs

By Leila Fujimori

LAST UPDATED: 1:31 a.m. HST, Aug 12, 2010

A shortage of deputy sheriffs on the Big Island has prompted the state Judiciary to shut down three part-time satellite courthouses beginning Oct. 1 until further notice, officials said yesterday.

North Kohala and Hamakua district courts will hold hearings at South Kohala District Court. Kau District Court will hear cases at Kona District Court.

The action stems in part from a new state Department of Public Safety rule: Unless two sheriffs are available to staff a courthouse, none will be provided. That requirement was recently approved after the sole deputy sheriff on duty at the Kailua-Kona courthouse was injured last month trying to stop a brawl in Family Court.

"It's certainly going to be a hardship for people in Kau to make it to Kona," said Dawn West, Big Island deputy chief court administrator in charge of client services. The change will require Kau residents to travel 90 minutes to attend court hearings.

Until Oct. 1, no security will be available for judges, court staff, attorneys and the public should fewer than two deputies be available to staff a courthouse.

Robert Kim, president of the West Hawaii Bar Association, said there was no sheriff yesterday in Family Court in Kona.

"There was a litigant who was waiting outside the courthouse, and the attorney needed an escort to his car, and there was no armed sheriff anywhere in the whole courthouse," he said.

Kim is calling an emergency meeting of the bar's membership for authority to boycott court hearings for lack of security for attorneys and citizens.

"I am not going to have attorneys being killed because of the mismanagement in the Department of Public Safety," he said.

In a letter to the Sheriffs Division in Hilo, Judiciary officials related how a judge in Naalehu felt uncomfortable when no deputy was on duty July 14, a week after the Kona Family Court incident.

The courtroom there is a small room with no security screenings. The judge sits a few feet from the public.

West said the sheriffs' shortage has been a problem on the Kona side of the Big Island for a couple of years, and has frustrated Judiciary officials, who have long expressed their concerns to public safety officials. Of the 10 deputy positions, one sergeant and four deputy positions are filled, leaving five positions vacant.

James Propotnick, public safety deputy director for law enforcement, said the department has been granted an exemption to the governor's hiring freeze and is authorized to fill six more deputy positions in Kona and five in Hilo.

For new court hearing times, go to court_closure.html

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