by Drew R. Hamilton
Every institution goes through growing pains. Whether you’re the head of a non-profit organization or a Fortune 500 company, most endeavors require the ability to maintain a balance between change and tradition. In an effort to adapt to new challenges, logistics and “consumer friendliness” suffer at the Hillsborough County Courthouse.
Unless you’re an attorney, a judge or a deputy, chances are you don’t spend much time at the courthouse. That’s a good thing. The courthouse can be an intimidating and confusing place.
Navigating your way to the right location at the courthouse can be a challenge, beginning with paying for parking using the newly installed computerized parking meters in downtown Tampa.
Visitors to the courthouse can usually be classified in one of three categories: victim, witness to a crime or accused of criminal or civil mischief.
Since the tragic events on September 11th and the creation of Homeland Security, county courthouses all over the country have been required to increase security. The additions of front entrance screening and deputies in the courthouse have all been installed in order to “harden the target”.
However, the application of this new level of security comes at a cost to the courthouse’s ability to serve the public efficiently.
Master Deputy Michael Eastman, whose career in law enforcement spans over 29 years, serves as part of that increase in security. However, he spends most of his time trying to help people, mostly those without lawyers, navigate the sometimes-confusing layout and procedures of the courthouse:
One common misconception is that the “clerk of court” is one destination at the courthouse. However, as Eastman explains, each court (felony, misdemeanor, family/juvenile, traffic, civil) has its own clerk of court.
Eastman goes on to tell an anecdote of a law student who was looking for some trials to observe and sheds light on their limited ability to meet the public’s high expectations.
In fact, the main courthouse is only one of four buildings that actually serve as the court system for Hillsborough County and downtown Tampa.
Building #1 is the main courthouse that houses the clerk of court for Family/Juvenile Court, Traffic Court and Civil Court and also serves as the only public entrance, since September 11, 2001.
Building #2 is referred to as the Annex, where we found Deputy Eastman on the second floor. It holds the Felony Clerk of Court and most all of the actual courtrooms for traffic court, felony court, misdemeanor court, family/juvenile court and civil court.
Building #3 is the Old Courthouse and houses the State Attorney’s local office.
Building #4 is the Public Defenders office and houses the Misdemeanor Clerk of Court.
Deputy Eastman lays out the court system landscape in downtown Tampa here:
One source of confusion is the fact that the courthouse serves as the only public entrance since the 2001 increase in security. If an individual gets a traffic summons, it is addressed with the Annex’s address (401 Jefferson Street), where traffic court is located. However they can’t enter that address from the street. They have to enter the courthouse at 800 Twiggs Street and come across the bridge. This can spell trouble for many people who have no clue about the ins and outs of the courthouse.
The courthouse system was designed to be navigated by an attorney, not the average citizen. Thinking about saving money by not hiring an attorney can be a costly mistake. Deputy Eastman explains the importance of having an attorney, even for a traffic ticket.
Here is a typical encounter for Deputy Eastman, where he goes above and beyond to help a middle-aged man find the right courtroom and his thoughts on the conflicting perspectives of the average citizen and law enforcement and the court system.
As society evolves and the court system has to adapt to new challenges, logistics and ease for citizens will continue to suffer. However, with the help of civil servants like Deputy Eastman, going above and beyond their duty, the system will get by.