File photo: Denise Civiletti

With the sudden passing of one of Riverhead’s own, Allen Smith, attorney and judge and former town supervisor, the town ought to honor his memory in a special tribute. What better way than to dedicate our Town Justice Court in his memory, and name the court building on Howell Avenue after him?

But wait…

No one would be more uncomfortable with that idea than Uncle Allen himself. Why?

In the years he served in Riverhead Town Justice Court, Judge Smith struggled to alert one town board after another of the court building’s unsafe, overcrowded conditions, where every day was a risk for litigants, security and police staff, jurors and civilians.

See: ‘Woefully inadequate’ facilities: the case for replacing Riverhead Justice Court

In succession, town supervisors, town council members, engineers and others paid him the kindest attention. They agreed that conditions at the court/police department building at 210 Howell Avenue had become alarming. They even got the state to give the town the abandoned armory building on Route 58 for a new police/court complex and then spent $87,500 on study and plans to convert it. But then they balked at spending the money to do the construction. Did they think the new complex would materialize out of thin air? If they didn’t want to execute the plans, why waste $87K to have them drawn up?

Architect’s rendering of the former armory building on Route 58, after renovation for use as a justice court-police complex.

They probably could have saved a big chunk of that bundle of study money simply by listening to Judge Smith, as he spent tons of hours putting together reports, concepts, all kinds of solutions, and actual plans he cobbled together himself for the town board’s benefit. You see, Allen was like that, practical and industrious, willing to do the dirty work. Ask his fellow volunteers at the Riverhead Fire Department — ask anyone in town – of their enduring respect for his wisdom and common sense.

And he wasn’t the only voice urging Town Hall to address the court mess. The other town justices, as well as the judges who have sat there from other courts, the sheriffs who nervously deliver inmates from the jail, the defense attorneys, assistant district attorneys, jurors, court staff, law enforcement officers, expert witnesses, the general public — they’re unanimous that Riverhead’s judicial branch of government operates in a facility that is a spectacular embarrassment. Shame on our town officials who have let it become such a disgrace.

We’re talking about handcuffed prisoners walking through public hallways filled with jurors who lack a jury room, and lawyers and clients with no suitable place to speak in private.

Thousands of people are scanned by court security each month where only a handful passed though when the building opened in 1985.

The line of people waiting to get into Riverhead Justice Court on a Monday morning in September 2019. The courtroom was already packed to capacity, as was the interior hallway. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead’s very own little courthouse has a maximum seating capacity of a paltry 52. This results in an overflow on many days, in all kinds of weather, that forms a line down the infamously busy hallway, spilling out the front door and down the building’s front steps. Delays in proceedings are constant, simply for lack of room. To that same hallway, jurors are sent when the judge and attorneys conference during trials; defendants and their families and witnesses will often be out and about that same area.

No jury room means that after trials, jury deliberations have to be in the courtroom, frequently interrupted when the court is needed for unexpected arraignments and other work; even the building’s exterior offers risky hiding places for weapons, while the parking lot adds to the misery with almost no available spaces.

In response, town boards and supervisors in Riverhead, over time, have done nothing but favor everyone with relentless tap dancing.

“Determine that the thing can and should be done, then find a way.” Abraham Lincoln

For the sake of safety, and of Riverhead’s reputation, the town should find a way to solve the worsening problem of its own courthouse. They should take inspiration from the words of another lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, who said, “Determine that the thing can and should be done, then find a way.”

The people rightfully expect this kind of problem-solving from their town board and supervisor, and to make the court scandal a priority – and this time be serious and tenacious about it. With skill and imagination, all manner of resources should be explored, including foundations, federal grants, and reallocating the town’s own budget. Form a citizens’ task force to help: Riverhead’s community overflows with talent for this kind of effort, and they’d be thrilled to volunteer.

Doesn’t Riverhead deserve some help for an essential project like this, given how it has taken on more than its fair share of “regional” affordable housing units, group homes, drug treatment operations, mental health facilities, homeless housing, and much more? Our town board even takes on the burden of regional solar farms which do nothing for the town’s economic growth.

Consider as well the helping hand Riverhead deserves for the huge contributions to Long Island by its school district, which grows exponentially with new students each day from who knows where, to the point that it tries desperately to raise millions just for more classrooms.

A paradox it surely is: Riverhead is Suffolk’s poorest town, that gives what it has quite generously. Surely there’s well deserved help to be found for building an adequate courthouse.

And when we finally have a courthouse worthy of this great town, then we will also have a courthouse that we could rightfully dedicate to Allen Smith’s memory. Of that he would be eternally proud, and so for sure would we.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg