WINCHESTER — In an effort to increase security, searches of civil and defense attorneys began Monday at the Joint Judicial Center in Winchester.
Winchester City Sheriff Les Taylor said up to 2,000 people use the courthouse at 5 N. Kent St. each day and some bring in weapons such as pocket knives or items that could be used as weapons such as box cutters. People can either return them to their vehicles or they are confiscated by deputies.
Others who have permits to carry concealed pistols have tried to enter because they forgot to leave the guns in their vehicles or didn’t realize they can only be carried in the courthouse by law enforcement personnel. Taylor said Virginia law considers prosecutors and judges to be law enforcers so they are allowed to carry guns and aren’t searched.
Taylor said the change wasn’t prompted by a specific incident such as an attorney bringing a gun into the courthouse or any of the recent mass shootings, but is part of ongoing security efforts. He noted attorneys are searched at courts in neighboring Fairfax and Loudoun counties.
“It’s just the times we live in. Some people don’t like it, but they just have to understand that circumstances being the way they are these days, that these are the precautions we have to take,” he said. “A little bit of inconvenience is worth saving lives.”
Taylor said some lawyers don’t like being searched, but attorney John Hasselberger said he understands the need for increased security.
“I’m surprised they didn’t do it sooner,” he said after being searched on Monday. “Every other courthouse I’ve ever been in, and I practiced in Texas for a little while, did not let attorneys just walk in.”
Attorney Kevin G. McKannan, president of the approximately 150-attorney Winchester-Frederick County Bar Association, said members planned to discuss the change at their regular meeting on Monday afternoon. McKannan, a Winchester city councilman from 2015-18, said he personally was OK with the change and with prosecutors being exempt.
There are thousands of courthouses in the U.S. and courthouse shootings are rare, but violence is increasing. Between 1970-2009, there were 199 incidents of either arson, bombings, or shootings at state courts, with 39% occurring between 2000-09. That’s according to the National Center for State Courts, which relied on a 2010 study by Center for Judicial and Executive Security.
A follow up report documented 209 incidents between 2005-11 where a planned arson, bombing or shooting was thwarted before it occurred. Of those incidents, 67, or 32%, occurred in 2011.
In a 2012 article on security, the National Center said in addition to technology such as alarms and metal detectors, courthouses must have adequate security staffing. It said court security is a “vital responsibility” for court administrators.
“Given the rise in violent court incidents and the constant threat of future incidents and based on funding constraints, providing this type of secure environment is a daunting challenge,” the center said. “However, with a careful and measured approach, improved communication and access to funding, this challenge can be met in ways that minimize the risks inherent in courthouse operations.”