Minnesota County's Court Security System Seeks out Weapons

Charlie Gegen's business card identifies him as "a lawyer — a legend," but the 71-year-old criminal defense attorney still has to strip a few items before entering the Dakota County Courthouse in Hastings.

Down comes the briefcase. Off goes the jacket. Even Gegen's belt must pass through a screening machine — all in the name of keeping judges and jurors safe from harm.

Such are the rigors of a new courthouse security system installed in August. Even regular visitors like Gegen, a former judge who has practiced law in Dakota County for the better part of 40 years, must walk through metal detectors and pass personal items into an airport-style X-ray machine.

Not everyone is happy with the new system, which demands more time, patience and understanding from the public. But fatal shootings in an Atlanta courthouse this year and in the Hennepin County Government Center two years ago have given some officials pause.

Similar "point of entry" security systems are in place in Ramsey, Hennepin and Washington county courthouses.

While detractors bemoan the delay and inconvenience of the screenings, courthouse administrators and officials with the Dakota County sheriff's office say the measures are only appropriate, given that an estimated 150,000 visitors enter the courthouse annually.

Since mid-August, more than 26,000 trays of clothing, watches, wallets and personal effects have rolled through the X-ray machine. Sheriff's Deputy Mark McKnight, who staffs the "point of entry" system four days a week, has confiscated a potpourri of the inappropriate — from scissors, screwdrivers and hunting knives to metal marijuana pipes.

A few weeks ago, a young woman in her 20s tried walking through with brass knuckles hidden in her purse, ostensibly given to her by her father for protection.

"We're in a very rural area, and almost everybody carries knives. They just forget to leave it at home," McKnight said.

Not all of it makes it to the detectors. To avoid the peering eyes of the law, courthouse visitors sometimes toss their contraband in the bushes outside the building, under piles of leaves or in an outside garbage receptacle. Not long ago, officers noticed a woman acting strangely before discarding an item in the trash. A closer investigation uncovered a sex toy.

If the item isn't blatantly illegal, sheriff's deputies allow visitors to choose between walking their jackknives and other effects back to their car or abandoning them forever — there's no return service available. "It just gets too busy to start issuing receipts," McKnight said.

Courthouse employees, judges, public defenders, city attorneys and county prosecutors are issued special identification cards that spare them the screenings. The X-ray machine and metal detector were installed at the same time as new security cameras in all the courtrooms and hallways, in addition to an alarm system for judges, at a total price tag of $100,000.

The county also added a full-time courthouse security employee to its budget, at $60,000 for salary, benefits, uniforms and training.

That's a waste of money to Joel Carlson, a legal process server who drops by the courthouse three or four times a week to pick up documents ordered by private companies.

"I was just giving them hell the first time I went through," said Carlson, who thinks the measures are an unnecessary inconvenience.

To avoid backups out the courthouse door, administrators installed S-shaped queues a few weeks ago that have helped keep visitors in line — literally.

"There's a crunch, obviously, right before 9 o'clock, and right before 1:30" p.m., said Assistant Chief District Judge Ed Lynch. "But overall, I think they're working out pretty well."

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