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Population squeezes judicial system

As Pasco's population has risen in the past decade, so has the number of court cases. A proposed $30-million courthouse could ease the crowding.

By CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2001


Pasco's judicial system is feeling the effects of the county's steady population growth, and the only way to relieve overcrowded courthouses is to build a new criminal court complex in Land O'Lakes, the county's administrative judge said Thursday.

"We are maxed out," Circuit Judge William Webb said.

Webb was responding to census figures released this week that show Pasco's population has grown 23 percent during the 1990s, from 281,131 people to 344,765.

Against that backdrop, a committee of judges and other county leaders decided last year after a series of meetings that a $30-million courthouse needed to be built in Land O'Lakes to handle all of the county's criminal cases. The proposed complex would include eight courtrooms, each with adjoining judges' chambers and witness rooms, and office space for the state attorney, public defender and clerk of court.

The number of criminal and civil cases filed in the county has grown steadily over the past decade. In 1999, 82,092 new cases -- criminal, civil, family law, probate, juvenile, traffic and small claims -- were filed in Pasco, according to court records. That's an increase of nearly 9,000 over the 73,629 new cases filed in 1990.

The largest increases have been in civil traffic infractions, family law and probate cases.

A central criminal court complex would allow judges and other court officials to manage the growing number of criminal cases more efficiently by consolidating operations under one roof, Webb said.

A similar, $53.7-million complex opened in Pinellas County in 1996.

Civil cases would continue to be split between the existing courthouses in New Port Richey and Dade City.

The committee recommended paying for the complex with a bond issue and a Penny for Pasco sales tax option. County commissioners plan to put the one-cent sales tax option on a referendum in November 2002.

Commissioners have not made any decisions about a new courthouse.

The West Pasco Judicial Complex, renovated in 1996 at a cost of $6-million, already is bursting at the seams, Webb said. Secured rooms designed to sequester witnesses from courthouse traffic have been converted to office space. As a result, witnesses are forced to wait unsupervised in the sprawling commons area, creating all sorts of potential problems.

On several occasions, Webb said, mistrials have been declared because witnesses had improper contact with jurors walking to and from courtrooms.

"It's not a good situation, but we've had to make do," Webb said.

Webb also said the county's growth should result in three additional judges in Pasco by 2005.

"There's no doubt we're going to need them," he said.

- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236 or 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavis@sptimes.com.


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