Recent security changes at the state's busiest courthouse have created a rift between some lawyers and judges and the bailiffs assigned to ensure their safety.
Some see the stringent security checks as excessive and even harassing.But the newly assigned bailiffs, who are being singled out as causing the problems, said they just take their jobs seriously - even if that means checking the IDs of a judge, a prominent defense lawyer or the district attorney.
The problem was highlighted this week after a female bailiff filed a sheriff's report claiming defense attorney Ron Yengich hit her on the buttocks as he walked through the court's metal detector.
Yengich adamantly denies hitting deputy Debbie Spoons on the buttocks and said the report was an effort to embarrass him. He said he's had long-standing problems with Spoons' partner, deputy Randy Lish, who also submitted a report on the incident.
Newly stationed bailiffs at the front entrance of the building on 400 South have stopped at least three judges in recent weeks and Salt Lake District Attorney Neal E. Gunnarson to question their credentials.
In one instance, a veteran prosecutor got into a shouting match with Spoons after he hurried through a metal detector at the door before she finished checking his briefcase.
Lt. Larry Marx, who supervises the bailiffs, said recent policy changes have caused some problems with people who have become used to a more lax atmosphere.
"Our whole goal is to make sure everybody in that building is safe," said Marx said. He added that it is ironic that "the very people we're trying to protect (are the ones) arguing and fighting and expecting special treatment."
The Yengich incident has attracted the attention of 3rd District Presiding Judge Leslie Lewis, who believes there should be some special considerations for "regular court users."
"I'm concerned that we balance the need for security with the need to treat people who use the court with respect and courtesy," she said. The recent incidents have prompted the judge to ask for a meeting with Sheriff Aaron Kennard, who's responsible for courthouse security.
Lewis wants to discuss creating a security pass for regular court users, including defense attorneys. Currently, the only people exempt from security searches are judges. Prosecutors can get through the security check quicker if they have their identification with them.
But there is no special allowance for defense attorneys. Spoons said it's her impression that some attorneys want special treatment, even from newer employees who don't recognize them. She said she knows of studies that claim attorneys can be a source of weapons and drugs for their clients.
Lewis said she knows of no such incidents involving local defense attorneys and wants to include them in any exemptions.
Local defense attorney Patrick L. Anderson said it's absurd to think defense lawyers would risk criminal charges or disbarment to provide clients with drugs or weapons. He questions searching the briefcases when the metal detector doesn't sound and nothing suspicious is seen on the X-ray machine.
"They don't search you as completely at the prison . . . or jail as they recently have been doing when you go into court," Anderson said.
Another local defense attorney, Karen Stam, said she doesn't expect special treatment but questions the legality of some of the searches she's endured. Marx said he plans to work with Lewis to come up with a compromise but adds it would be very difficult to exempt all defense lawyers because there are so many of them.
He acknowledges security checks can be intrusive but counters the alternative would be a less secure environment.
"If something were to go wrong, we'd take responsibility for it," Marx said, adding that he hopes people will adjust to the tighter security and problems will subside.
Meanwhile, sheriff's officials have referred Spoons' report about Yengich to prosecutors for possible action. The district attorney's office is expected to make a decision late Friday.
Yengich may also face the scrutiny of the Utah State Bar, though officials have not initiated any investigation, said executive director John Baldwin. The association is responsible for reviewing the professional actions of all licensed attorneys.
Yengich is one of the state's most recognized and popular attorneys. He is perhaps best known for helping obtain the acquittal of Sam Kastanis, who was charged with killing his wife and three children. Yengich also writes a weekly column for the Private Eye newspaper.