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Funds for Court Weapon Screening May Not Turn Up

Security: Judges want airport-style system installed at the main courthouse. Newer justice center in Orange has measures in place.


SANTA ANA — Hundreds of knives, razor blades and pairs of scissors are seized every month at the Betty Lou Lamoreaux Justice Center in Orange, the only county courthouse with airport-style security.

Officials can only wonder what makes it through the doors each day at the county's main courthouse in Santa Ana. They may be waiting another year.

Budget shortfalls are threatening once again to scuttle a weapons-detection system for the Orange County Courthouse, home to 11 floors of superior and municipal courtrooms that handle criminal and civil cases.

"We hoped that since the county came out of bankruptcy, the courts would come out of bankruptcy and we'd be able to move forward with some of these improvement projects," Presiding Superior Court Judge Theodore E. Millard said.

But Millard said those hopes were dashed during recent county budget negotiations that left the courts with about $107 million--about $40 million short of what court officials say is needed get through the fiscal year.

County officials say they won't be able to make final decisions about court funding until they know how much the state will contribute.

"There's no doubt the courts need the security system," Supervisor Don Saltarelli said. "We should fund it as soon as we can."

The security proposal includes about $350,000 to build four screening stations at the building's public entrances, complete with X-ray machines and metal detectors, and more than $700,000 for 19 officers needed to operate the system.

While there have been no major problems inside the county courthouse involving weapons being brought in through public entrances, court officials say the system would provide a powerful deterrent and complement existing security measures.

"The judges want something in here before something happens," said Marlene Nelson, a Superior Court administrator who works on budget issues. "We don't want a disaster to happen here."

At the Lamoreaux Justice Center, which was designed with airport-style security when it opened in 1992, officers routinely discover everything from guns to corkscrews at front entrance screening stations, Orange County marshal's office Capt. Paul Gushard said. The courthouse in Orange is home to the county's juvenile and family law court divisions.

In August alone, marshals detected one gun, 301 knives, 82 pairs of scissors, 37 razor blades and 54 canisters of pepper spray or Mace, four handcuffs, 16 corkscrews and 34 various types of tools, such as screwdrivers, according to county figures. Between January and August of this year, nearly 4,000 contraband items have been confiscated.

Officials have no estimate on the number of weapons they suspect are being brought into the Santa Ana courthouse, but are fearful a problem exists with about 7,000 trips in and out of the courthouse each day, Gushard said.

"We know that with the kind of people we're dealing with in detention, and many of those we took into custody from the courtrooms, we would find [weapons] on them regularly," Gushard said.

The proposed security system has been involved in budget debates since at least 1994, when the Orange County Grand Jury called on the Board of Supervisors to pay for the courthouse security devices, citing increased crime in the Civic Center area and shootings at other Southern California courts.

While the money for the system has remained elusive, officials have improved security in other ways that officials say are less obtrusive and restrictive.

In 1994, county supervisors approved $350,000 for measures that included magnetic door locks, courtroom security cameras and an expanded security desk in the front lobby. Portable metal detectors have been used outside courtrooms in which gang-related and other potentially volatile trials were taking place.

The airport-style security system was listed among hundreds of budget items considered last month by the Board of Supervisors.

County Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier's office ranked most of the proposals as "critical," "meritorious," or "desirable," with all critical requests receiving funding.

But the county did not give a ranking to the security system or dozens of other court-related items. Instead, officials said items would be reconsidered once state funding for the courts is secured.

Officials had hoped the Legislature would pass a bill providing the extra money to cover court costs through next summer, but the proposal died without action. A new court funding bill is expected when the Legislature reconvenes in the coming months.

The county finds itself in a similar situation to last year, when the municipal and superior courts were faced with the prospect of shutting down for the last three months of the fiscal year unless they closed a shortfall that at one time reached $31 million.

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