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Big Island courthouses may close due to security shortage

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The state Judiciary is considering temporarily moving the Kohala and Hamakua court calendars to the Waimea courthouse. A Page B1 article yesterday said the Kohala and Hamakua calendars might be moved to the Hilo courthouse.


The Judiciary may shut down three of its part-time satellite courthouses on the Big Island temporarily because of a lack of sheriffs to provide security.

Meanwhile, the head of the 80-member West Hawaii Bar Association said the shortage has reached crisis proportions and is threatening to sue the state over the situation, citing the safety of judges, staff, attorneys and the public.

There are currently only five sheriffs staffing the courtrooms and courthouse offices in West Hawaii, which includes three full-time courthouse facilities in Kona as well as part-time satellite courthouses in North Kohala and Kau. The region is supposed to have funding for 11 positions, but six are unfilled.

The shortage of sheriffs has been a problem in West Hawaii for a while now, but the situation came to a head several weeks ago when the only deputy sheriff staffing the Family Court in Kailua-Kona was injured during a brawl at the courthouse. After the incident, the state Department of Public Safety’s Big Island office instituted a new policy requiring that sheriffs work only in pairs.

Since then, Big Island Judiciary officials and sheriffs have been juggling court schedules to ensure there is adequate security when necessary.

Courthouses in North Kohala, Kau and Honokaa may need to shut down until sheriff staffing is again adequate, said Wes Suwa, Big Island deputy chief court administrator in charge of court operations.

Suwa said yesterday that a final decision on the closings will be made in the coming weeks. Under the plan, the Kau district court calendar would be transferred to Kona, while the Kohala and Hamakua calendars would be transferred to Waimea. The shutdowns would occur no earlier than October and there would be ample notification, he said.

"We’re seriously considering this because the sheriffs are unable to give us any assurance that they’re going to be able to provide security," said Dawn West, Big Island deputy chief court administrator in charge of client services.

The Kau and Hamakua courthouses operate twice a month while the North Kohala courthouse is open just once a month.

But West said the Judiciary recognizes the inconvenience the temporary closures will have, since people in Kau, North Kohala and Hamakua will now have to travel long distances to attend court proceedings or access court records.

James Propotnick, deputy director for law enforcement in the Department of Public Safety, said budget restraints have prevented his department from holding new sheriff training classes for several years.

The problem is particularly troublesome in West Hawaii, where the department traditionally has had difficulty finding qualified candidates, he said.

He acknowledged that the sheriffs’ situation in West Hawaii "has been getting progressively worse over the years."

Propotnick said that besides working with judges and court clerks on scheduling of the court calendars, the department is bringing sheriffs over from the East Hawaii office in Hilo whenever possible.

Robert Kim, president of the West Hawaii Bar Association, said ultimately it’s up to the department and the state to provide the staffing. He pointed out that four of the 11 West Hawaii positions were temporarily reassigned to the Kapolei courthouse when it opened last year.

Kim’s organization is discussing taking legal action against the state if conditions don’t improve, he said.


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