What an honor, Your Honor

CLASS ACTION: Pre-Law instructor Dr. Kerkhoff’s students experienced meet-and-greets with judges, bailiffs and K-9 dogs, and observed the closing arguments in a criminal trial, May 4 during the “Law Week” activities at the Palm Beach County Courthouse.

A dozen Hurricanes accompanied Pre-Law instructor Jennifer Kerkhoff to the Palm Beach County Bar Association’s annual “Law Week” activities May 4, hosted by the 15th Judicial Circuit at the Palm Beach County Courthouse in West Palm Beach.

The 9th-, 10th- and 11th-graders went through security when they arrived, then on to a meet-and-greet with the Hon. Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath. The students received a 15th Judicial Circuit booklet that displayed the events of the day, as well as a 15th Judicial Circuit pen. They were allowed to ask Judge Colbath questions which ranged from what colleges he had attended to how he handles his moral compass and the law.

Following that the students heard the closing arguments in a drug trafficking trial being presided over by Judge Samantha Feuer. They were not allowed to have their phones or to speak during the trial, since there were ceiling microphones that picked up noise that could disrupt the recording of the proceedings.

During the trial students learned that the defendant was charged with three counts: trafficking, conspiracy and resisting arrest without violence. The trafficking count carried a minimum mandatory sentence of seven years if convicted.

Both the state and defense attorneys argued their points during closing statements. The state presented first, followed by the defense, then the state gave its rebuttal before the case was turned over to the jury to deliberate.

On several occasions, when the defense attorney objected to things said by the state, Judge Feuer called both sides to the bench and turned on a muffled sound, called “white noise.” Dr. Kerkhoff explained that the white noise was necessary to make sure the jury members could not hear the conversation occurring at the bench.

The jury was all-white and six men. During lunch students learned that the jury pool had been a diverse group, but during jury selection the women had been excused for cause, such as a child having died of a drug overdose.

During lunch, which was provided by the Bar Association, a panel of five judges engaged in conversations with the students. Some of the judges were new, having served fewer than six months. One was a senior judge, having presided for more than 48 years. Some of the judges were recent appointees by Gov. Rick Scott. Others had been elected by voters.

The salary for a judge was an interesting topic. For instance, even though the senior judge had been working as a judge for nearly 50 years, the newer judges earned the same salary, which is set by the Legislature.

One of the judges had to leave early because she had 68 cases remaining on her docket for the afternoon session.

After lunch students went to another courtroom where two bailiffs and a K-9 police dog were awaiting.

The bailiffs talked to the students about the procedures in arresting someone, and the diverse types of handcuffs used at the courthouse — from those placed on the wrists, to ones that tied around a person’s waist, to leg irons.

The bailiffs also shared stories about inmates who had escaped from courthouses in other counties, and how some inmates try to be mini “Houdinis” by slipping out of handcuffs, or attempting to puff out their stomachs when waist cuffs are being attached, then trying to slip them down over their hips.

Two of the students had wrists small enough to slip off their handcuffs during a demonstration. An inmate showed the bailiffs how to unlock handcuffs that were not double-locked, by using a comb. Bailiffs now make sure to double-lock.

Students also were shown the holding cells, where they could go inside and take pictures.

The last part of the presentation was the circuit’s bomb-sniffing dog. The bailiffs set up several cones and the specially trained Labrador quickly ran through gunpowder-sniffing demonstrations. It was explained that dogs smell each individual scent — such as the meat, the cheese, the noodles, each spice and so forth for a lasagna— whereas a human smells the overall aroma. Students were also allowed to pet the K-9 and ask questions.

One bailiff told the students that because he had started in corrections when he was 19 years old, he was set to retire in two years, when he turned 50. From the judges, court administration staff and the bailiffs, the students learned about many career opportunities during their Law Week visit to the 15th Judicial Circuit courthouse.