Citizens’ right to bear arms prompts constitutional crisis between Sheriff, Courts

Lee’s note: I just wrote this for the paper. Click here to read the entire story.

A constitutional crisis if looming in the 12th Judicial Circuit — a showdown of sorts between Chief Judge Charles Williams and Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight.

Late last month, Knight removed the deputies from all of the court’s non-courtroom facilities — such as the Clerk of Court’s Office — where they screened visitors for weapons, after his legal team determined they could be in violation of the state’s powerful preemption statute, which allows only the Florida Legislature to regulate firearms.

In an administrative order hand-delivered to the Sheriff’s Office on Thursday, Judge Williams ordered the sheriff to return the deputies to the screening stations at the court facilities buildings, including the clerk’s office.

In a terse, three-sentence letter that accompanied the administrative order, Williams gave the sheriff until 5 p.m. Monday to announce when he would be in “full compliance” with the order.

Now, unless Knight can appeal the order or seek an injunction from another judge, he is left with a difficult decision: If he returns the deputies to the screening stations at the court facilities buildings and is sued for violating the preemption statute  F.S.S. 790.33  he and his staff could face penalties up to and including removal from office and/or a $5,000 fine, which the statute requires them to pay personally without the use of public money.

If the sheriff ignores the judge’s order, he could face contempt charges, and be sent to the very county jail he oversees.

Williams signed the order Thursday, and the document indicates it took immediate effect.

In his response, which was delivered Friday to the judge, Knight made it clear he will not comply with the administrative order, and that he has no plans to return his deputies to the court facilities.

Knight described Williams’ order as “overreaching in its scope from a separation of powers standpoint.”

“Furthermore it orders the sheriff to act in a way that encroaches upon the 2nd and 4th Amendment rights of citizens and exposes myself — and most importantly my deputies — to personal liability,” he wrote.

Knight told the judge that if he and other “entities” have concerns or want to “clear up the ambiguity” between the statute that Williams’ cited as authority for his order, Chapter 29  an appropriations statute  and Chapter 790  a statute that definitively preempts all other attempts to regulate firearm rights”  they should address them with the Florida Legislature.

He also points out that he has directed his staff to “assess the appropriateness of pursuing a writ in an effort to obtain clarity on this issue.”

Knight copied his response to County Administrator Tom Harmer, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh, Clerk of the Court and County Comptroller Karen Rushing, State Attorney Ed Brodsky and Public Defender Larry Eger, “in the hopes that if the Court or Court Administration continue to believe that Chapter 29 takes precedent over Chapter 790, they will seek funding from the county as prescribed in Chapter 29” and pay for their own security.

Judge Williams declined to comment for this story, but court spokesman Dennis Menendez said the judge “stands by the administrative order that he issued.”

The judge’s action drew sharp criticism from Marion Hammer, a past president of the National Rifle Association, a current NRA board member and executive director of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, the state’s NRA affiliate. The NRA has sued over preemption violations in the past.

“In my 40-plus years of working with the Legislature, I have never seen a judge decide that they know more about what the law says than 40 senators and 120 representatives,” Hammer said. “If a judge can make law with administrative rules, we need to quit wasting our time, money and effort electing legislators. This is one of the most egregious things I have ever seen.”

Right to carry

The event that triggered the impasse between the two supposed co-equal branches of government began last month after a state lawmaker questioned why he wasn’t allowed to carry a weapon into the Clerk of Court’s Office.

Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube, known as a staunch gun-rights supporter, was stopped by private security guards and a Sarasota County deputy on Valentine’s Day when he tried to enter the Clerk’s office while armed.

“I was denied entry due to the fact that I was in possession of a weapon,” Steube wrote in an email to Sheriff Knight, which he sent just an hour after the encounter.

“I informed the security guard that I had a concealed carry permit and was licensed to carry,” Steube wrote. “The agent said that it was a government building and I was not permitted to carry weapons.”

Citing Florida Statute 790.06, Steube explained to the guard, who was joined by a deputy, that “government buildings” are not considered “gun free zones” according to the law.

Steube, who also is an attorney, explained that the clerk’s office is not a courthouse and thus “not an enumerated gun free zone under 790.06.” “Therefore, please advise under what law your deputies denied my constitutional right to carry and my right to conceal under F.S. 790.06,” he wrote.

Three days later, Chief Deputy Col. Kurt Hoffman, a former prosecutor and Knight’s general counsel, issued a legal opinion, which explained the agency’s “exposure to personal liability for restricting the suspicion-less free movement of people entering publicly accessible non-court Clerk of Court offices and restricting their firearm rights.”

Not only did Hoffman recommend pulling deputies out of the Clerk of Courts Office at 2000 Main St., he recommended re-evaluating the security at the R.L. Anderson Administrative Center, 4000 S. Tamiami Trail, and the Criminal Justice Center, 2071 Ringling Blvd.

Removing the deputies, Hoffman noted, is the least restrictive way to comply with state statutes, to avoid the “potential liability associated with restricting access to non-court publicly accessible government locations for concealed-carry permit holders …”

Knight concurred with Hoffman’s findings, according to documents obtained by the Herald-Tribune, and informed the state attorney, public defender and the clerk of court that the deputies would be removed.

On Friday, after watching the drama unfold, Steube zeroed in on the same issues cited by Hammer.

“Never in my experience as a lawyer or a legislator have I seen such a flagrant, blatant violation of the separation of powers,” he said. “Chief Judge Williams does not make the law through administrative order, the Legislature makes the law. The Legislature has clearly spoken and stated that only concealed weapon permit holders are restricted from carrying concealed in a ‘courthouse’ pursuant to 790.06, it says nothing about ‘Court Facilities.’ Judge Williams is drafting his own law to suit his own desires as it relates to 12th Circuit and not strictly interpreting the law made by the Legislature.”

— Senior investigative reporter Lee Williams,The Gun Writer, can be reached at 941-284-8553, by email at lee.williams@heraldtribune.com or lee@TheGunWriter.com, or by regular mail, 1741 Main St., Sarasota, 34236. You also can follow him on social media at facebook.com/TheGunWriter or Twitter.com/ht_gunwriter.

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About Author

Lee Williams can’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t shooting. Before becoming a journalist, Lee served in the Army and worked as a police officer. He’s earned more than a dozen journalism awards as a reporter, and three medals of valor as a cop. He is an NRA-certified law enforcement firearms instructor, an avid tactical shooter and a training junkie. When he’s not busy as a senior investigative reporter, he is usually shooting his AKs, XDs and CZs. If you don’t run into him at a local gun range, you can reach him at 941.284.8553, by email, or by regular mail to 1777 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.

8 Comments

  1. Danny Martin on

    Just a though, If the Sheriff is ordered to reinstate the Deputies at these post and does on the order of the Judge. Shouldn’t the Judge be the one held responsible?

  2. I don’t see why the Sheriff is only faced with compliance or non-compliance with state statutes. Unless I’m missing something, Judge Williams has only ordered that the deputies be returned to the screening stations. I see no issue with deputies checking to see that someone carrying has a valid CCW license, then allowing access. That way they are fulfilling their duty to protect the facility without denying entry to armed citizens who have a valid license, while also screening for someone who may be armed illegally.

  3. Utah judges got away with just this kind of thing. State law requires a “gun free zone” to provide lockers for those they are disarming. $$ were provided to cover the costs. Judge said “no”, and nothing is being down about it.

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