Sheriff vs. Chief Judge right-to-carry impasse argued before appellate court


Chief Judge Charles Williams attends Wednesday’s hearing at The Florida Second District Court of Appeal in Tampa. [Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner]

Lee’s note: I just wrote this for the paper. The case has statewide ramifications, and could effect your right to carry into non-courtroom facilities operated by the court.

Can the chief judge tell the sheriff how to provide court security?

TAMPA — A trio of appellate judges grilled attorneys representing Sarasota County’s sheriff, chief judge and clerk of court Wednesday, trying to ascertain the extent of the chief judge’s powers and how they impact the sheriff’s responsibilities.

At issue: Can the chief judge tell the sheriff what to do as it pertains to court security.

The case, which has very clear statewide ramifications, is further muddied by the bifurcated responsibilities of the sheriff, who is both the executive officer of the court and a constitutional officer with clear executive powers.

Even with their near-constant interruptions, the three judges of the Florida Second District Court of Appeal betrayed little about how they will rule on the case — a decision expected in months.

They peppered every attorney who came before them.

“The question is clear. Statutorily and constitutionally the Sheriff is the executive officer of the court. The scope is to what limits does this individual operate as an officer. We have to set a limit here,” said DCA Judge Stevan Northcutt.

The hearing, held in Stetson University’s Tampa Law Center, is the latest round in an ongoing constitutional feud between the executive branch — in this case, represented by Sheriff Tom Knight — and the judiciary — represented by 12th Circuit Chief Judge Charles Williams.

The case centers on what constitutes a courthouse and the sheriff’s role in screening for weapons, including guns, in non-court facilities.

It started when Knight pulled his deputies out of all non-courtroom facilities operated by the court. Williams sent the sheriff an administrative order, telling the sheriff to return the deputies to their former screening stations.

After he received the order, Knight sent a 70-page petition for writ of certiorari, asking the DCA to “quash all unlawful portions” of the administrative order he received from the chief judge.

Williams asked the DCA to deny Knight’s petition.

In his response, Williams cited the traditional relationship between the sheriff and the courts, and asked the appellate court to intervene.

The case could impact court/sheriff relations throughout the state.

The Florida Sheriff’s Association filed an amicus brief in support of the sheriff.

The Florida Association of Court Clerks filed a brief in support of Karen Rushing, Sarasota County’s clerk of court and comptroller, who was named along with Williams as a co-respondent in Knight’s petition.

The case was fast-tracked at the Chief Judge’s request.

Rushing was in the courtroom Wednesday, sitting in the audience along with Williams, other judges and court staff.

Making their case

Each side had 20 minutes to state its case.

Patrick Duggan, Knight’s general counsel, began by telling the judges that the sheriff takes court security “very seriously.”

“We humbly seek a declaration to determine the proper branch to oversee court …” Duggan began.

“The sheriff has executive authority — is the sheriff not acting as an officer of the court?” Judge Northcutt interjected. “Is he not under the direction of the chief judge?”

“I don’t believe so,” Duggan said, adding, “When the court’s not there, what security needs to be done?”

Duggan explained that, in his opinion, the chief judge can order the sheriff to provide security, but it it “unlawful” for the judge to tell the sheriff how to do it.

“I don’t believe the court has the authority to do this,” Duggan said. “We’re not dealing with judicial functions. We’re dealing with executive law-enforcement functions.”

“The proposition I’m putting to you is that in this case, the sheriff is not a member of either branch,” Judge Northcutt said. “The sheriff is an officer of the court, and the administrative order from the judge is to the sheriff as an officer of the court, not a member of the executive branch.”

The appellate judges noted the historic, common law relationship of the sheriff to the courts.

“What they’re asking us to do in the administrative order is not part of common law,” Duggan said. “These are very detailed operations — wanding, searching people, keeping guns out of courtrooms — not contemplated in common law. With common law, people carried guns wherever they went.”

During his presentation, Matthew Conigliaro, an attorney retained by Chief Judge Williams, began with a “simple, factual point.”

“Nothing in the order that’s been challenged directs the sheriff to do anything that the sheriff and his predecessors were not doing for years,” Conigliaro said. “All actions in this order the sheriff has been performing in the past.”

“The past? It doesn’t mean they’re required,” Northcutt said.

The judges peppered Conigliaro about whether the sheriff could hire private security guards to man the checkpoints.

“Regardless of what could be provided by third parties, the question here is does the court have the authority to direct its executive officer,” Northcutt said.

“The sheriff is willing to provide what the order requests in the four corners of the courtroom,” Conigliaro said. “But the sheriff takes the position that outside the four corners things change.”

Preemption

Knight’s legal advisers recommended that deputies be pulled from the screening stations because they were concerned the practice could expose deputies to severe sanctions under Florida’s preemption statute.

Violations of the state’s preemption statute, 790.33, by a public official can lead to $5,000 fines and other costs, which the official must pay personally. If the offender is an elected official, the person can be removed from office.

The impasse began when Florida Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, tried to enter the “Sarasota Historic Courthouse” on Main Street with a concealed weapon.

Private security guards and a sheriff’s deputy denied Steube access. He later complained to Knight in an email 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 and deputy that “government buildings” are not considered “gun free zones” according to the law.

Knight and his legal team reviewed their security practices. Concerned about their exposure “for conducting suspicion-less screenings for firearms and weapons in court facility areas where court does not actually occur,” the sheriff pulled his deputies from the screening stations.

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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 1741 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.

1 Comment

  1. Judges are sworn to uphold the law. If the law does not consider government buildings “gun free zones” by law abiding citizens, then the judge has no authority to try to force the sheriff to violate the law. We have a Democrat governor here who made a policy that guns are not allowed in any state buildings, which includes buildings like the ABC store. Our state gun rights organization had the policy evaluated by legal counsel, and the determination is that the governor cannot create a law, only the legislature can do that. Consequently, while the governor can put a policy into place stating that people can’t carry in state buildings, it is just that; a policy. As such it is not a violation of the law to carry your legal gun into a state building and all anyone can do is ask you to leave if they discover you are carrying one. If you refuse you are now committing a trespass, but the carrying of a gun is not a crime. In the case of the article, while judges can rule on existing laws, they have no authority to create laws.

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