Courthouse Security Checkpoints Amass Cache

Aug. 27, 2007
From ninja's weapons to cell-phone stun gun, courthouse security checks find it all

Inside the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center on 11th Street in Austin, where criminal court cases from all over Travis County are heard, a sign says "carrying a deadly weapon on your person, including a licensed concealed handgun, is prohibited" and will result in prosecution.

Apparently, it's not a well-read sign.

The sheriff's deputies who work there say court-goers try to take in about eight to 10 guns and several dozen illegal knives and clubs each year.

And that's just part of it. Brass knuckles, throwing knives and handguns hidden inside belt buckles are a small sampling of what Lt. Wes Priddy, who oversees security at the county's courthouses, has collected. His cache also includes nunchucks and butterfly knives, as well as crack pipes, dime bags and tools for measuring and cutting cocaine. He has .22s, .38s, .45s and Derringers.

It's Priddy's job, along with about 30 officers who work security at the courthouse, to make sure those things don't get past the door and are cataloged and sent on their way.

"It's truly amazing to see what people are carrying," Priddy said. "After a while, you just shake your head and file the charges."

Deputy Michael Digiantonio keeps a wooden cane in the corner of his office. The cane looks normal; it has a tarnished brass top shaped like the head of a cobra. But twist off the cobra and out comes a 17-inch sword.

"A little old lady tried to bring this into court," said Digiantonio, who trains officers for courthouse security. "She said she carried it for self-protection. It's an excellent training tool because you can see the blade inside the wood on an X-ray machine."

A lot of what Digiantonio sees reminds him of gadgets from Q's lab in the James Bond films. A six-shot pistol with a knife blade built into the barrel, a stun gun disguised as a cell phone and a comb with a 3-inch knife inside.

Priddy said most of the items were bought on the Internet or at flea markets and gun shows.

When visitors walk into the courthouse, they must put their belongings into a tray, which goes through an X-ray machine. Then they step through a metal detector. Deputies also have hand-held wands to detect metal items.

Officers make a distinction between items that are clearly illegal inside the courthouse - guns, drugs and large knives, for example - and items that are simply not allowed, such as scissors. For the latter, the deputies give people the option of taking them back to their cars or discarding them in a bucket.

"I've seen people throw away some nice knives because they're late to court and don't have time to put them in their vehicle," said Deputy Brian Rubel.

Anyone who tries to take weapons into the courthouse is arrested and is typically charged with a third-degree felony.

Weapons or drugs are tagged as evidence to be used when cases go to trial.

Some are sent to the Travis County Sheriff's Training Academy to help teach recruits how to spot such contraband. Most are destroyed, Priddy said.

Deputies try to be especially mindful of what goes into the civil courthouse, which is adjacent to the criminal courthouse, where tempers can flare during divorce and child custody hearings.

"We had a guy try to bring in a butcher knife," Digiantonio said. "He said he was a chef, but he was going to a divorce hearing."

Some items Digiantonio finds terrifying. He shows off a small, ultra-sharp plastic knife that is impossible to detect because it isn't metal.

Then there are the ancient weapons: throwing stars, brass knuckles and three-bladed throwing knives.

"It's surprising how many ninjas we have in Travis County," Priddy said.