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SW Michigan lawmaker introduces courthouse violence bill

A southwest Michigan lawmaker wants to make courthouses safer.

Rep. Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge) has introduced legislation that would increase the maximum penalties for people who commit courtroom assault.

LaSata and two other lawmakers, Rep. Andy Schor (D-Lansing) and House Democratic Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) introduced a three-bill package in light of the Berrien County Courthouse shooting and an incident in Ingham County last summer. A defendant tried to stab an assistant prosecutor there.

This is the first bill LaSata has introduced since she was sworn in earlier this year.

LaSata's husband is a Berrien County judge. She says the shooting last July happened in the hallway outside of his courtroom.

"Lots of things were racing through my mind," LaSata said.

Bailiff's Ron Kienzle and Joe Zangaro were shot and killed after police say an inmate named Larry Gordon took a deputies weapon and started firing.

"What this bill will hopefully do is prevent maybe some of those people that are thinking about going to a courtroom and shooting someone and hopefully they'll think twice about that," LaSata said.

The three-bills aim to increase the maximum penalty for acts of courtroom assault from 10 to 15 years.

It would also allow charges to be filed if someone attempts assault on a courtroom employee, including judges, prosecutors, police and court reporters.

"There's never anything that's going to be a total protection but I think it does increase the protection," said Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz (R). "Deterrence is one of the realities that does work. If somebody knows there's a greater penalty, they'll think twice."

Fitz was handling a case as a special prosecutor on the day of the Berrien County Courthouse shooting.

He says threatening incidents have happened in Cass County courts, but none have ever resulted in violence.

"It's really a routine thing on a monthly basis where our jail security becomes aware of somebody who may be violent when they come in," Fitz said. "They do a very good job in making sure we have adequate staffing when that happens."

The Berrien County Sheriff's Department says changes have been made since the shooting last July.

"We've always taken our jobs very seriously but now that we lost two of our friends, I think it's brought our employees to a new level of being careful everyday, to make sure we use the protocols we have in place," said Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey (R).

And now potentially a new law which may prevent violence from happening again in a Michigan courtroom.

"Joe and Ron would both be happy," Sheriff Bailey said. "They lived in police and court work. Both of them were over 30 years in their career. They both worked very hard and were very diligent in making sure the courtroom and the courthouse is as safe as it could be."

LaSata says the bills have already gotten bi-partisan support.

They're under review by the law and justice committee.


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