Conflicting snowstorm policies leave RI courts without more than half of sheriffs

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s courthouses experienced delays on Friday after more than half of sheriffs stayed out of work under the state’s adverse weather policy.

On Thursday night, Gov. Gina Raimondo put the policy in place for state employees in the executive branch – including sheriffs – until 4:30 p.m. Friday. It allows workers to use available time off to stay home from work during a severe weather event.

The judiciary branch, however, decided against enacting the adverse weather policy. Court spokesperson Craig Berke told Eyewitness News that judicial officials thought they were in the position to conduct a regular court calendar day because the snow had stopped, parking bans were being lifted and the courthouses were in working order.

Another reason, Berke said, was that court business was already starting to fall behind due to the short week following New Year’s, as well as the Kent County courthouse’s closure Tuesday after a pipe burst.

But since the sheriffs – who handle security at all of the state’s courthouses except the Traffic Tribunal – are part of the executive branch, those employees still had the option of taking the day off. And many did.

R.I. State Police Lt. Col. Kevin Barry told Eyewitness News that while 64 sheriffs reported for duty, 71 used either vacation or personal time on Friday. Sheriffs are used for courtroom security, including transporting criminal defendants and helping to manage the court calendar.

Berke said that judicial officials did specifically reach out to the sheriff’s department Thursday night to inform them that they were planning on having a normal court schedule. He called the situation a “perfect storm” and said the courts will take Friday’s incident into consideration next time.

Chief Sheriff David DeCesare called the incident an “anomaly at best” and said it was the first time in his tenure there was a split decision over the adverse weather policy between the executive and judicial branches.