Oakland deputies stop hundreds of weapons at courthouse

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Hundreds of weapons and items that could be used in attacks have been confiscated from people entering courthouses in Oakland County in recent years, and people’s desire to arm themselves does not show any letup, officials say.

Since 2013, more than 1,200 edged weapons — ranging from martial-arts throwing stars to a 4-foot long sword concealed inside a cane — have been recovered by officers at circuit and district courthouse security checkpoints, according to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, whose deputies staff X-ray machines and detectors at entrances. More than 174 were confiscated in a 15-day period last month.

“County buildings can be potential targets on their own but due to the nature of the environment — heated disputes, civil cases, animosities, victims and their families ... any day can turn out to be the day,” Sheriff Michael Bouchard said.

More than 675,000 people visited the circuit courthouse at 1200 N. Telegraph in 2015, passing through any of the four X-ray machines, four metal detectors as well as four hand-held metal detectors. These machines and deputies caught nearly 400 edged weapons, a firearm and ammunition and more than 50 containers of mace or pepper spray last year.

Similar measures at 13 district courts across the county recovered 200 weapons.

“The explanations are pretty weak — usually that they didn’t realize they couldn’t take something into court or forgot they had it with them,” said Capt. Doug Molinar, who oversees circuit court security. “Either way, these aren’t things we want in our courts and — unless illegal and seized — are usually given the option to return it to their vehicle or drop it in a box to be destroyed.”

Weapons include straight knives, pocket knives, scissors, tools fashioned into weapons, brass knuckles, box cutters and razors and bottle openers.

Some of the more exotic weapons include thin credit-card size items carried in wallets which, once unfolded, convert into knives, or fountain pens which can be transformed into daggers. Others have carried weapons disguised as key chains, jewelry and hair grooming tools.

And the people carrying the items aren’t gang members or criminals, according to Molinar. Three firearms were taken off of two attorneys and a pastor.

One young mother en route to the clerk’s office for paperwork had an 8-inch long butcher knife concealed under her baby in a stroller. Another attorney was carrying a machete in his briefcase. He said he forgot he had packed it but had planned to stop at his daughter’s home later in the day to clear out some brush.

Court administrator Kevin M. Oeffner described the number and type of weapons collected by deputies as “startling.”

“Why would anyone think it is acceptable to carry some of those things around with them — let alone into a courthouse?” Oeffner asked.

The county spends $2.6 million annually on security and 18 full-time and 70 part-time deputies.

About 100 unacceptable items a month are recovered by deputies, some of whom find them discarded in bushes outside two circuit courthouse entrances. Officials could not provide the number of people who are prosecuted and said some are just ticketed.

But other visitors have been arrested when arguing against having items confiscated, like a limping 65-year-old North Carolina man in December when deputies ran his walking cane through an X-ray machine and found its snake-headed handle, when pulled out, revealed a 4-foot long double-edge, razor sharp sword.

“They took his cane and when he said he needed it to walk they gave him a loaner cane,” the man’s attorney, Jon Gaskill, said. “When he demanded his old cane back he was arrested.”

Deputies said the man was warned he faced possible arrest and when he refused to leave until his cane was returned, he was taken into custody. He was charged with carrying a concealed dangerous weapon, a double-edged non-folding knife. The offense is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $2,500 fine.

“We plan to plead to a lesser charge later this month when he is next scheduled to appear in court,” Gaskill said.

Security measures at the Oakland court recently were criticized on a Michigan Bar Association blog where members complained of “gestapo tactics” and having to undress before heading into a courtroom.

“Security at Oakland courts are probably no worse than in Wayne or Macomb counties,” Bloomfield Hills attorney David Walker said. “In Wayne there is a line for attorneys and you are often waved through, even if you set something off, because you are known.

“I find (as an attorney) this is frustrating and we should have a presumption (of law abiding) and courtesy when we come to court as officers of the court. I don’t look at lawyers as a risk.”

Attorney David Carl Anderson, president of the 3,000-member Oakland County Bar Association believes security may have “tightened up” due to discovery of some people carrying “shivs,” or knifes, in their belts.

“That and other contraband that was brought into the courthouse by a small group of people made it more of a concern,” he said.

“Unfortunately 9/11 changed many things in our society and we are still paying the price — or inconvenience I should say — for that,” Anderson said.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319