Streaming through the smeared portals of D.C. Superior Court, the accused and their accusers cast nary a glance at the bold capital letters posted by the entrance, warning in English and Spanish that they’d better think twice before bringing so much as a sharp pencil into the halls of justice.
“WEAPONS OF ANY KIND,” the cream-colored sign blares, “INCLUDING ALL GUNS, KNIVES, (SWISS ARMY KNIVES), AND ANY OTHER DANGEROUS ITEM WILL NOT BE ALLOWED IN BUILDINGS OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURTS. SUCH ITEMS WILL BE PERMANENTLY CONFISCATED.” Skeptics are forewarned with a final, blunt admonition at the sign’s bottom: “STRICTLY ENFORCED.”
I fidget with the nail clipper in my pocket, placing mental odds on whether the metal detector inside will begin wailing as soon as I step through the doors. In my shoulder bag, surreptitiously tucked under a Tupperware bowl of stir-fry, is a metal fork and table knife. But neither the metal detector nor the guard manning the X-ray conveyor belt registers a peep as bearer and bag pass through. I am now inside, free to impale an unsuspecting prosecutor with the file on my nail clipper or jab some passing juror with my fork.
Security is equally tight across the street at 451 Indiana Ave. NW, another Superior Court building that houses the city’s Corporation Counsel and Public Defender offices. There, I dutifully dump my keys and change into a plastic container before sailing through the detectors with my poor man’s weapons.
Magnetometer rituals such as change removal are entirely dispensed with at the nearby Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) headquarters, where a gunman in 1994 rode an elevator up to the third floor, walked into a squad room, and opened fire, killing a police officer and two FBI agents. Metal detectors were installed shortly thereafter, but as far as I can see MPD proffers no handy box in which to deposit coins before entering. I offer the guard my change anyway, but he waves me through, murmuring, “Should be all right.”
Cautiously, I up the ante. A handheld staple remover, bearing some remarkably sharp fangs, a 7-inch pair of scissors, a small can of pepper spray. Contraband in tow, I weave through traffic over to 1 Judiciary Square, the sprawling seat of District government squatting at the end of the block.
Affording visitors an optional trip through metal detectors stationed at either end of the cavernous lobby, the city’s municipal nucleus turns out to be particularly accommodating. If you’re pressed for time, bypass the detectors, as I do, striding purposefully past the cordoned-off security checkpoint and around to the elevator bank. The guard doesn’t seem to mind; Mayor Marion Barry, the building’s 11th-floor occupant, isn’t toting around that praetorian security detail for nothing.
“Sharp objects are usually not allowed, unless you’re an employee,” says Robert Heatley, the acting chief of D.C. Protective Servicesthe agency responsible for security at 1 Judiciary Square and more than a hundred other government facilities. Heatley maintains that “any instrument that can do bodily harm” is confiscated.
But those guidelines are purely theoretical at 1 Judiciary Square. Asked whether anyone is ever allowed to enter without passing through the metal detectors, Heatley says that only “councilmembers, the mayor, and whomever they might designate” are given that privilege. Maybe the guard mistook me for Sharon Ambrose.
But maybe my first foray past security at 1 Judiciary Square was a fluke. Perhaps the newspaper the guard was reading that day was especially engrossing. While admiring the D.C. Council’s plush new digs on the seventh floor, I resolve to give the local security commandants another chance.
Growing ever more brazen, I pack an eclectic mélange of hardwarefeaturing a stiletto-sharp letter opener and a 6-foot coiled wireand waltz back into 1 Judiciary Square and police headquarters the next day. On my way into Superior Court, though, a guard discovers the wire, part of a 99-cent “picture hanging kit,” in my pocket after the metal detector chirps.
“Ahhh!” he says triumphantly, and lets me in.
At Superior Court, which is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Marshals Service, “any article that can be reasonably used as a weapon is forbidden,” according to a security official. “Scissors? No….Usually we’ll hold those until the party leaves. Crochet needles, any knifebutter knife, steak knifeis confiscated. Forks, same thing. Only plastic forks and spoons are allowed. Mace is prohibited; that’s a Superior Court rule.”
Even if someone quite innocent carries in a letter opener or the like, says Todd W. Dillard, U.S. Marshal for the D.C. Superior Court, “there’s always the potential that somebody else could take it from them.” That somebody is unlikely to be a security guard, however.
Over at police headquarters, where D.C. Protective Services furnishes security in conjunction with MPD, Sgt. Francis Hinton says that the officers staffing the metal detectors “pretty much judge things on whether they think a person may have criminal intent….Say a seamstress is coming in here to measure somebody, with some cloth and scissors. Letter openers and stuff like that, I don’t knowthat’s a judgment call.”
Of course, some weaponry doesn’t make the cut. The courthouse keeps a box of confiscated items, including ice picks, daggers, and butcher knives, that even bigger fools than I tried to smuggle in. According to site supervisor Charles Moton, my letter opener, scissors, knife, fork, and pepper spray should have been added to this collection, which is periodically shipped to a steel mill to be melted down. “I have no explanation,” Moton says, after quizzing me about the various times of day I entered the building, “…other than they shouldn’t have been allowed to come in.”
During my final exercise in metal undetection, a security officer singles out my bag from the procession bumping down the conveyer belt at Superior Court.
“You’ve got something in there like a long bar that’s metal,” she informs me. It’s the first and only time anyone at the courthouse or anywhere else has detained me to scrutinize my bag’s contents.
“It’s a paperweight,” I say, lugging the thing out for inspection.
“You’re not gonna hit nobody in the head with it?” she inquires as I drop the dead weight back into my bag.
“No,” I smile benignly and step into the teeming courthouse.CP