I was saddened to learn about the courthouse shooting in Cook County, Minnesota in December. After a sentencing hearing, a convicted defendant went out to his car and brought a gun into the courthouse, where he shot a witness and the attorney who prosecuted his case. There were no metal detectors at the courthouse. In fact, the vast majority of rural courthouses and a few urban courthouses have no security either.
A few years ago, I was clerking for a judge in downtown Minneapolis when a party in housing court shot a deputy, a party and an attorney after a contentious hearing. Shortly after, the court where I worked implemented weapons screening as well as other security measures. However, the same judicial district opted against implementing weapons screening at its suburban locations. Now, according to the Star Tribune, Judge Lloyd Zimmerman has decided that he will not hear cases at the suburban locations until weapons screening is implemented. Court administration responded that implementing weapons screening at these courthouses is simply too expensive right now.
While I am no fan of implementing measures that make citizens feel like they are living in a police state, there can be no doubt that weapons screening in courthouses has become vital to the safe and effective administration of justice. I might have felt differently a few years ago. Back then, I didn’t know anyone who had been attacked by a family court litigant. I do now.
I had never seen a fight break out in the courthouse. I have seen fights on many occasions in recent years. Most recently, two women had to be pulled apart by security after a custody hearing ended badly for one of the combatants. I wasn’t the only bystander. My clients were no doubt worried about whether it was safe to tell the Court what was on their minds.
Our courts rely on public participation to work. Parties to disputes must feel safe enough to bring cases before the courts, rather than rely upon self-help measures and vigilante justice. Witnesses must feel safe enough to be sworn and tell the truth. Jurors must feel safe enough to enter the premises and make decisions based upon the law and the facts. Attorneys, judges and staff must feel safe enough to do their best work.
For these reasons, I support weapons screening in all courthouses.
Courthouse Security Tips:
1) Many courthouses do not permit knives. Leave your pocket knife key chain in your car.
2) Some courthouses do not permit cameras. Leave them at home.
3) You may be asked to remove your shoes and/or your belt. You may be asked to remove your coat or suit jacket. Ask before you go through the metal detector whether you should remove them.
4) Make sure you empty your pockets of change. Make use of the buckets.
5) The people operating the metal detectors are not the TSA. They don’t care about your liquids. You can bring in your cupcakes, although you probably shouldn’t eat them in front of the Judge. And, they are not going to check your ID. If they ask to see your papers, it’s to direct you where to go.
6) Be security conscious as you leave the courthouse. Many courthouse incidents occur in the parking lot outside. If your case is particularly difficult, you may want to ask courthouse staff to escort you outside or to hold the other party inside the building while you leave.