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Court officials increase staffing to handle RNC arrests

Published Jul. 25, 2012

TAMPA — Both early birds and night owls who get in trouble during the Republican National Convention will be accommodated by a triple shift of judges, prosecutors and public defenders camping out for RNC week at the Falkenburg Road Jail.

Officials have no idea how many arrests to expect from RNC protests Aug. 27-31, but one worst-case estimate is 1,000.

If the worst happens, the courts and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office say they have plenty of judges and jail cells. Judges will convene at 8 a.m., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. every day and will be prepared to stay late.

The first step will be to entirely fence off the downtown courthouse and annex, as well as the State Attorney's Office and Public Defender's Office on Aug. 24.

No juries will be summoned convention week. Court proceedings will be parceled out to the Falkenburg Road Jail and satellite offices.

The plan was actually developed years ago for natural disasters like hurricanes. It has never been needed. The Republican convention and any "waves" of violence or other lawbreaking, "is a good opportunity to test it out," says the 13th Judicial Circuit's Trial Court administrator, Michael Bridenback.

Court officials won't neglect the everyday, run-of-the-mill crooks, either.

At Falkenburg, Judge Walter Heinrich will conduct his usual first-appearance court every morning at 8. He'll hear a mixed docket of routine arrests and any protester arrests. Depending on circumstances, arrested protesters could plead guilty to misdemeanors or they could seek bond and help from public defenders.

They won't be in the same room as the judge. They'll appear before him from large gallery rooms at Falkenburg and Orient Road jails by way of closed-circuit TV.

Other judges will take over at 2 and 8 p.m. All will be authorized to go late.

Other court proceedings, including hearings for domestic violence, juvenile delinquency, child-support enforcement and the emergency shelterings of abused and neglected children, will take place at satellite offices.

No hearings will be held at the downtown courthouse, but a security staff will be on hand. Anyone who shows up will be directed to the right place.

John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or jbarry@tampabay.com.

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