COUNTYWIDE : County Issue: Courtroom Searches

Ventura County Municipal Judge Steven E. Hintz recently ordered bailiffs to search courtroom spectators for weapons and check them for outstanding arrest warrants, drawing criticism from prosecutors and defense attorneys. How can the courts ensure safety in the courtroom without violating the right to public trials?

Cmdr. John Kingsley Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, Court Services Division

Outside the courthouse we have signage indicating that it is a felony to come into the Hall of Justice with any type of weapon. We use electronic scanners that are hand-held and run over people to indicate to us whether or not they have a weapon. That’s something we’ve been doing for some time and will continue to do. There is no 100% guarantee that we will be able to determine--unless we do everyone coming into the building, which we don’t do--that we’ll find a weapon. As a deterrent, we take the initiative when we feel it’s necessary. It would be nice if we could X-ray everybody coming in, however the building wasn’t designed to do that. We do periodic surveillances for weapons as we feel the need dictates. This is what we normally do, and I don’t feel we’re violating anybody’s rights. This is just a precaution taken for the safety of everybody in the building the including attorneys, judges, the public and witnesses, everybody who comes into the courtroom.

Neil B. Quinn Deputy public defender for Ventura County


I think you analyze the danger and need for security based on all available evidence. What is reasonable in one county may be unreasonable in another. For Ventura County traditionally, measures of security have included armed bailiffs in the courtroom, buzzers in every courtroom where numerous additional bailiffs can be summoned at a moment’s notice, and signs at the entrance notifying people that it is illegal to have weapons. If there is an extraordinary situation stemming from a specific threat, then other measures can be utilized. The action we filed was to restrain the Municipal Court from having the type of search which occurred on Nov. 15. Visitors to the courtroom were detained, asked to provide identification, run for warrants, searched and patted down and all their belongings looked through. We’re seeking to avoid that situation, especially when the search is not stemming from a particular reason but from a general desire to show that they can do such things.

Judge Lee E. Cooper Jr. Ventura County Municipal Court presiding judge

If we could lock down the courthouse and screen everyone entering the building, that would not violate anyone’s right to a public trial or anyone’s access to the court. Certainly events in Courtroom 12 that day did not violate anyone’s rights to a public trial. I was not there, but I have been assured that no one was searched in an unreasonable way. Appropriate security measures to a public trial and the right to a public trial are totally consistent, one with the other. We would be derelict in our duty if we did not take reasonable steps to ensure that everyone can come into the courtroom without fear of violence. I am confident that victims, witnesses, defendants and anyone else attending the courts would prefer to know that we are seeking to maintain at least a reasonable degree of security in the courts.

Kenneth I. Clayman Ventura county public defender

They have mechanisms in place to assure safety. For example, they have a rule which allows people entering the courthouse to be searched, or they can leave if they choose not to be searched. They also have a very effective and expertly organized security sYstem for the courthouse characterized by the presence of two deputy sheriffs, bailiffs, in each courtroom. It’s very effective in its design to recognize and prevent potential problems. Further, when there is specific information which would amount to probable cause to believe that there is potential for difficulty, that certainly provides a reason in that prescribed circumstance to let people know that when they enter the courtroom they will be subject to some sort of search for weapons. Although under no circumstances do any of these things provide a reason for running warrant checks. I just don’t see any relationship of that action to the evils sought to be addressed.

Michael D. Bradbury Ventura County district attorney

Clearly Judge Hintz’s action was an unwarranted invasion of privacy of innocent, law-abiding members of the public. That approach undoubtedly had a chilling effect. Again this week Judge Hintz implemented security measures, and he did it right this time. Officers were positioned at the door to the courtroom and a noninvasive device was used to check for weapons. People were allowed to decide not to enter the courtroom, there were no warrant checks run, and the visitors to the court did not have to produce identification. This clearly satisfies the security needs of the courts and at the same time protects the rights of privacy. Nobody is more concerned about security of the courts than prosecutors who are most often the target of assassins. But it must be done property and with regard to the rights of individuals. In the latter case, involving a gang shooting, there was a need to assure the security of the courtroom.