A program allowing attorneys to bypass the security line at Jackson County’s two courthouses could be in jeopardy following concerns that attorneys may be bringing firearms into the facilities.
16th Circuit Presiding Judge John Torrence told circuit officials at an en banc meeting last month the issue came to light after attorneys who are carrying firearms have forgotten their Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association courthouse security passes to bypass security and have to go through the normal security process of metal detectors and scanners.
“So they’re coming through, setting off the scanners and lo and behold, they’re carrying pistols,” he said. “Which means there are probably hundreds of times of month, I would think is a reasonable estimate, that lawyers are coming into our courtrooms and they’re possessing weapons because they’re not going through the scanners with their cards.”
He told circuit officials he has asked the court administrator to research the practices of other similar circuits when it comes to allowing lawyers to bypass security using a bar card. So far, that research has shown that only Clay and Jackson counties allow the practice.
He said the consensus among officials he’s talked to is that it is not secure.
A meeting between sheriff’s representatives, KCMBA and court officials to discuss the issue, including possible alternatives, is set for Sept. 8.
Torrence said he isn’t necessarily worried about the attorneys who are carrying, but more so about the potential for unsecured weapons in a courtroom.
“What we’re concerned about as a court is the fact that other people in a given courtroom have access to those weapons unbeknownst to us,” he said.
He said he realizes changes may be controversial.
“It’s going to ruffle feathers among the bar,” he said. “I think we need to change it.”
KCMBA President Dan Blegen said he was aware of only one incident described by Torrence, of a person claiming to be an attorney who forgot their card and was found to have a gun in their bag.
He said that incident was reported in Independence, adding that KCMBA does not know the person’s identity or if they were an attorney participating in the security pass program.
Sgt. John Payne of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the incident, adding that there have been 12 similar cases of people attempting to bring firearms into the courthouse in the last five years. Of those, he said three were lawyers.
Blegen said bringing a firearm into the courthouse would be against the rules of the program.
“Our rules specifically require you to acknowledge you are aware of the fact you’re not allowed to bring firearms into the courthouse,” he said.
Blegen said the program started in 2003, and has about 900 active participants.
The program has drawn scrutiny in recent years. Blegen said it was last reviewed around 2014 to 2015 after concerns were raised about the group being able to go into the courthouses without passing through security.
KCMBA updated its materials for pass users to read and sign as a result of the review.
“There was additional information added reminding lawyers of the rules and state laws about what you can and can’t bring,” into the courthouse, he said. “The form does have a list of things just to remind them and you have to certify you are aware of the rules of the use of the card.”
As the distributor of the passes, Blegen said KCMBA will participate in the discussion about security procedures.
“We think it’s a good program, we think it’s a good service for local lawyers, but we also want to make sure it’s safe,” he said.
Payne stressed the discussions are preliminary, and nothing has been decided.
“The safety and security of everyone visiting the Jackson County Courthouse is our primary concern, and from time to time we re-evaluate our security measures,” he said in a statement.
Craig Grimes, counsel for Truman Medical Center, was at the Kansas City courthouse Thursday. He said he’d be sad to see the benefit go.
“It’s extremely convenient, especially during trial when I may be lugging in a box or two of my own,” he said, noting that on the first day of trial, lawyers also have to contend with a long line of potential jurors.
John Hicks, an attorney for Norris & Keplinger in Overland Park, Kansas, agreed.
“It’s bad that a couple of bad apples are ruining it for everybody else,” he said. “I don’t know what you do about that.”
He said an alternative to fully scanning each attorney could be to screen attorneys at random and penalize the attorneys who are bringing firearms to court. Grimes said using hand wands for attorneys could also help.
Attorneys and visitors to the Clayton courthouse in St. Louis County must go through a strict security screening, including removing items like shoes and jackets.
The issue of courthouse safety is particularly sensitive in Clayton. In 1992, Kenneth Baumruk fatally shot his wife prior to a divorce hearing at the courthouse there and shot and wounded others, including attorneys.
St. Louis attorney and former State Rep. Mike Colona attempted to relax the security process for attorneys in the circuit by filing bills on the issue in multiple sessions, but the bills did not pass.