Sheriffs in Manatee and Sarasota counties have changed security policies at their clerks of court’s offices, allowing visitors with concealed weapons permits to enter the buildings with their weapons — despite a judge’s order to ban weapons because courthouse business is handled there.
Sarasota County Sheriff Thomas M. Knight said Friday he will not return deputies and security checkpoints outside the clerk of court’s office, saying that would encroach on the constitutional rights of citizens to carry a weapon and against unlawful search and seizure.
That decision comes a day after Chief Judge Charles E. Williams sent a letter to Knight, demanding to know in writing when the sheriff intended to be in full compliance with an administrative order, also issued Thursday, that updated security and operations of court facilities policies. In his letter, Williams set a 5 p.m. Monday deadline for the changes to be made.
According to Williams’ order, court facilities include all District 12 clerks of courts offices and other non-courtroom facilities in which court business is handled and for which the sheriff is responsible in providing security. In providing security of court facilities, deputies appointed to do so by the sheriff’s office of Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties are “acting as an arm of the judicial court in furtherance of court business.”
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On Friday afternoon, Knight responded in a letter to Williams, stating “that the administrative order is overreaching in its scope from a separation of powers standpoint.” Anyone wanting further restrictions, Knight said, would need to take it up with the state Legislature in order to clear up the ambiguity between the two statutes involved.
Knight attached a memo prepared by his general counsel, Chief Deputy Col. Kurt A. Hoffman, in which Hoffman cited that the conflicts between statutes and the new administrative order forced the sheriff to choose between violating the constitutional rights of citizens or violating Williams’ order and face the possibility of being held in contempt of court.
In Manatee County, changes have also been implemented at the Manatee County Historical Courthouse, which houses the clerk of courts offices and the historical courtroom. It is not used for official court proceedings, and because of what has unfolded in Sarasota County, weapons covered by a concealed permit carrier will be allowed, according to Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells.
“The critical part here is are we violating Chapter 790,” Wells said. “I believe that the statute is very clear on the definition.”
In discussions with his staff and legal counsel, Wells determined that the “historical courthouse does not meet the true definition of a courthouse” as outlined in the statute, he told the Herald Friday.
As of last week, security policies at the historical courthouse have changed as a result, and anyone with a concealed weapons permit will be allowed to bring weapons into the building. Unlike in Sarasota County, however, Wells said the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office has not removed its security checkpoint, and anyone entering the building still will be screened.
“We believe that is the correct course of action,” Wells said.
The changes to security staffing in Sarasota came following an incident in which state Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, was denied entry to the clerk of court’s office at 2000 Main St. in Sarasota because he was carrying a knife, according to an email he sent Knight. Steube had told the deputies that he had a concealed carry permit and argued that the clerk’s office was not a gun-free zone as a government building, according to state statute.
Deputies still insisted weapons weren’t permitted, Steube wrote.
“I asked under what rule, policy or law,” Steube emailed Knight. “His rather rude response was if I had a problem with it, to take it up with the sheriff. So here we are.”
Steube, who sent the email from his private attorney’s email account, asked to know under what law his constitutional right to carry and conceal was being denied. As a result, Knight directed his legal team to review all current laws, administrative orders and the circumstances surrounding Steube’s complaint.
Hoffman concluded that while the previous judicial circuit administrative order listed the clerk of courts office as a court facility, statute prohibits weapons from being brought into a courthouse or a courtroom, not the clerk of courts or a courthouse facility. The sheriff’s office and the sheriff himself, therefore, could be held personally liable for restricting citizens’ constitutional rights.
Beginning Feb. 22, in agreement with Hoffman’s recommendation, Knight ordered the removal of deputies from the clerk of court’s security checkpoint and ordered his staff to review to make sure no further adjustments needed to made at other locations where the sheriff’s office staffed security.