The line of people waiting to get into Riverhead Justice Court Monday morning at 9:20 a.m. The courtroom was already packed to capacity, as was the interior hallway. Photo: Denise Civiletti

On a typical Monday morning, the queue of people waiting in line to get into Riverhead Justice Court extends down the main hallway, out the front door, down the steps and onto the sidewalk outside the building shared by the court and the Riverhead Town Police Department.

The courtroom itself has an occupancy limit of 100 people. The rows of wooden benches fill up quickly and then no one else can enter the courtroom. The line in the hallway and outside the building doesn’t move.

“It’s just too small in there,” said a man who identified himself as Gary, who was waiting in line outside the court/police building Monday morning. At 9:20 a.m., the line already stretched down steps and onto the sidewalk. He said he was there to pay a ticket. “This is pretty ridiculous.”

Another man said his attorney was already inside and he was worried he would miss his case being called.

“What happens then?” he asked.

When town police bring a prisoner from the police department’s portion of the building, they escort the handcuffed individual through the crowded hallway, past the line of people waiting to get into the courtroom. No one in the line has yet passed through the metal detector in the hallway, which is staffed by one or two unarmed court officers.

Entrance to prisoner holding area of the justice court. (RiverheadLOCAL photo by Denise Civiletti)

When other law enforcement agencies, including the Suffolk Sheriff’s Department, bring prisoners to the court, they enter the building through a locked, though publicly accessible, side door. There’s no protected port area to provide a secured entry to the building, not even a fence or wall to protect the officers — or, for that matter, their prisoners.

The safety and security problems with the 34-year-old building were documented by the State Office of Court Administration in an assessment done in 2006. The recommendations made by that agency 13 years ago have largely gone unheeded: installation of outdoor video cameras, bullet-resistant exterior glass, locked gates to restrict access to the sides and rear of the building, armed peace officers to staff the metal detector at the main entry-point.

“That is a major, major issue waiting for something bad to happen,” said Councilman Tim Hubbard, a retired Riverhead Town Police detective.

The town board has been discussing expanding or replacing the justice court since at least 2003, when it had engineering firm H2M draw up plans to add a second-story and two first-floor additions to the 16,938-square-foot, single-story concrete block building.

In 2009, it had plans drawn to expand the town hall building at 200 Howell Avenue to accommodate the court facility, allowing the police department to occupy the entire 210 Howell Avenue building next door.

In 2010, the town successfully sought the transfer of the former state armory site on Route 58 for use as a new police and court complex. That 5.7-acre site, improved with a 32,000-square-foot building built in the 1950s, was transferred to the town by the state in 2011 for $1.

In 2013, the board had an architect draw up plans plans — at a cost of $87,000 — for redeveloping the armory but in 2014, when confronted with a potential price tag nearing $22 million, balked.

Architect's rendering of the armory building after renovation for use as a justice court-police complex.
Architect’s rendering of the armory building after renovation for use as a justice court-police complex.

In January, justices Allen Smith and Lori Hulse met again with the town board to urge action. Though board members generally agreed action was needed, no firm plan of action materialized.

With their criminal and traffic court caseloads now approaching 200 cases three days a week, Riverhead Town justices and justice court staff are struggling to cope with the limitations of a facility that was not designed to handle the volume of cases heard there each week.

The two town justices, who combine to cover arraignments seven days a week year-round, are theoretically part-time employees of the Town of Riverhead. They share one courtroom and one small office, which is accessible from the courtroom by walking through a larger, though very cramped, outer office that holds half a dozen desks, a copying machine, file cabinets and cardboard file boxes.

In addition to handling arraignments of all people charged with crimes in the Town of Riverhead, the court hears cases involved town code violations, landlord-tenant matters and small claims.

Riverhead Town Justice Allen Smith goes over plans for a new town court-police complex in the former NYS armory. (RiverheadLOCAL photo by Denise Civiletti)
Riverhead Town Justice Allen Smith in his office with plans for the armory building in March 2014. File photo: Denise Civiletti

With interest rates at near-historic lows, the town would likely be able to borrow the money to redevelop the armory as per the 2014 plan at “probably less than 3%,” Smith said.

Since Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance has also outgrown its dated facility on Osborn Avenue, Smith suggested, a new ambulance headquarters could be built on the armory site, which is large enough to accommodate another building, he said.

But Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said this week she doesn’t see the armory as a feasible solution to the town’s space needs.

“It would need so much work and would cost so much to rehab,” she said.

“We’re looking at different alternatives for the justice court,” Jens-Smith said. She said she’s had discussions with the judges about temporarily placing a portable outside the court building that could be used as offices for the judges. They include possibly moving the offices in town hall to a different location and moving the court into the current town hall building.

Hubbard said he always favored the armory plan, but it lacked support of other board members because of the expense involved.

Officials agree that the police department and court facility should be near each other, for efficiency’s sake.

They also agree that town offices, which are currently spread among four different locations, would be more efficiently located in one place.

Town officials admit to having had a number of discussions about possible sites for all town facilities, including the former McGann-Mercy High School campus.

It’s not clear what would become of the armory if the town board decides it would be cost-prohibitive to renovate it for use as a public safety complex.

The Nov, 17, 2011 deed from the State of New York to the Town of Riverhead contains a reverter clause which says the transfer of the site was conditioned on the “premises being improved and maintained for use by the police department, justice court, public safety and recreational programs developed and operated by the Town of Riverhead Police Department.”

It goes on to say that if the premises are not used for those purposes, “title hereby conveyed shall revert to the People of the State of New York and the Attorney General may institute an action in Supreme Court for a judgment declaring a reverting of such title to the state.”

A change in that reverter clause would require an act of the State Legislature, which officials have occasionally discussed seeking, in order to utilize the site for some other purpose — or perhaps even to sell it.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.