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Contraband at local courthouses could arm a small war

TAMPA — Some people feel naked without their hand grenades, handcuff keys, butcher knives, brass knuckles and loose bullets.

So it seems at courthouse security checkpoints. Not a day goes by without a knife, a blackjack, a razor or a can of Mace turning up in X-ray or metal detector scans. At the Hillsborough County Courthouse, a month's worth of contraband even included a golf driver, found outside.

Last week, a former judge clashed with security officers after they insisted on X-raying his wallet as he entered the State Attorney's Office. Officers say they get berated all the time.

But it's amazing and a little frightening, they say, what the X-ray machines turn up. The same is true at Pinellas and Pasco County courthouses, officers there say.

The common discoveries of dangerous contraband help explain why, besides screening, the Hillsborough court complex has 200 panning and zooming cameras, similar to systems in Las Vegas casinos. Those friendly, chatty officers in the lobby who ask visitors how their day's going are looking for odd reactions. And at any given time, they're tracking about 60 court cases that have potential for vengeful violence.

But culprits caught by the screenings often are women with purses so big they simply forget what's in them.

At the Hillsborough courthouse, one recent expedition into the deep end of a woman's handbag produced a pair of purple 2-pound dumbbells.

Another brought a butcher knife big enough to make mincemeat of a pork tenderloin. The owner said it got lost in the bottom of her purse. Her mother told her a woman should always carry a butcher knife.

Self-protection is the No. 1 excuse, regardless of gender, said Hillsborough sheriff's Maj. James Livingston, who heads security at the courthouse and the offices of the state attorney and public defender.

Brass knuckles? Livingston's officers confiscated three just this past month, all said to be for self-protection. One had the word L-O-V-E inscribed on the knuckles.

Livingston's favorite offender was a woman in her 70s who came to court packing a weighted leather blackjack.

She said her husband gave it to her on his deathbed. His last words: "Always carry this for protection."

It surprises some folks that knitting needles are a no-no, even to knit a sweater for the judge. Same goes for razors, metal rat-tail combs and metal nail files to spruce up for a jury.

In Hillsborough and Pinellas, people with potentially dangerous everyday items are given the option of taking them back to their cars, or dumping the items in a courthouse "amnesty box."

In Pasco, they don't get a choice. They must take the items back to their cars. So far this year, Pasco security officers have intercepted about 4,500 knives, scissors, chemical agents, razor blades and handcuff keys at the county's two judicial centers.

At the Hillsborough courthouse, some items in this month's box beg for an innocent explanation. There's the unarmed hand grenade, the heavy chrome gearshift knob that looks like a detonator, the switchblade knife, the hard plastic dagger that could slip through a metal detector, and the dozens of bullets of all calibers, some of them loose, some of them in magazines.

And elsewhere in the pile are three handcuff keys, in a courthouse where between 200 and 300 shackled inmates make their way to hearings every day.

As for the golf driver found outside near the judge's parking lot, they're still trying to figure that one out.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

>>FAST FACTS

Ex-judge disputes security officer account

TAMPA — Former Judge Robert Bonanno has filed a formal complaint against the security officer whom he was accused of berating July 1. "He filed a complaint and we are investigating it," said Debbie Carter, a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman. A security officer with the G4S company, who works at the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office, reported that Bonanno didn't want to put his wallet through an X-ray machine to enter the building and got indignant when asked to do so. The guard alleges his rant turned racial, and she called the Sheriff's Office after making requests he not call her names. Bonanno said in an e-mail Thursday to the St. Petersburg Times that the security officer fabricated statements attributed to him.

Contraband at local courthouses could arm a small war 07/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 8, 2011 12:13am]

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