Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Prosecutors Packin'

This is the new proposal making the rounds at the Kansas legislature this week. The bill would allow prosecuting attorneys who have concealed carry licenses and who receive supplemental training from the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center to carry their guns to the same kinds of special locations that only law enforcement officers can take guns now. The bill is specifically intended to allow prosecutors to carry concealed weapons into courtrooms.

At least two prosecutors spoke to the senate committee that passed the bill on to the full Senate. I am unaware of any opponents of the bill who spoke to the committee. I also do not know whether the committee solicited testimony from other court personnel, judges, victim's organizations, or defense attorneys. The bill passed the Senate 39-0. Yikes.

This bill is painfully flawed on many levels. First, I dispute the claims by prosecutors that this measure is necessary to ensure their safety. Armed officers are always available to be in a courtroom. Generally, security of the courtroom is a matter for the sheriff's department. If a particular defendant poses a greater threat than most, the proper response is for the sheriff to increase the security presence in the courtroom accordingly. I do not know what support, if any, the testifying prosecutors offered to the senate committee as explanation for why this measure is necessary. I'm looking for something beyond the basic we get threats and some of our defendants are bad, bad guys. I am unaware of any incident in the state where a defendant posed a physical threat to a prosecutor. (I am aware of a publicized incident in which a prosecutor asked the defendant if he wanted to take the matter outside, but that's a matter for a different blog post.) Whatever threats do exist are best left to law enforcement.

Second, the ability for one side but not the other to carry concealed weapons into a courtroom does much to skew that level playing field the criminal justice system is supposed to strive for. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys are officers of the court. Both are supposed to be equal parties in the eyes of the court. But the reality is that prosecutors possess an air of authority that defenders do not, at least not in the eyes of jurors. The prosecutors represent the state, the government. They're official. They're authority figures. Defenders represent just one lowly schmuck who did something wrong. "Yeah, yeah," prospective jurors say, "presumption of innocence." All the while, they're thinking the defendant must have done SOMETHING wrong to get to the defendant's chair.

Now the state is proposing to create further imbalance by confirming to jurors, witnesses, and the general public that prosecutors are "officials" while defenders are just people in suits. Imagine the prosecutor unbuttons his suit jacket, making his holster visible when he raises his arms. Or that her suit coat is tailored close to the body, making the gun bulge visible. Witnesses may be intimidated into giving answers that are more pleasing to the state, even if they're not as truthful as they could be. Or a witness could be made nervous by the packing prosecutor. That nervousness could lead to stuttering, sweating, or other mannerisms that make a jury think the witness is lying.

The presence of a gun on the person of one attorney, but not the other, has to alter the dynamics of the courtroom. Maybe I'm too pessimistic, but I don't see how those dynamics would be altered in a way that isn't harmful to defendants.

Finally, the presence of additional guns in a courtroom will not make the room safer. Quite the contrary. Courtrooms are volatile places. Emotions often boil over in courtrooms. The families in criminal courtrooms are, in most cases, dealing with the worst thing that will ever happen to them. They're scared, sad, confused, angry, grief-stricken, helpless, out of control. Some defendants are scared to the point of desperation. Many members of the public respond to a heinous crime by swearing, "If anyone did that to my family member, I'd kill him." Mostly, people may feel that way, but would never actually act on it. But it's not so hard to imagine that the parent of a raped, murdered teenage girl might go a little nuts one day and take a wild lunge for that prosecutor's gun. Or that a desperate defendant (Brian Nichols anyone) would grab for the gun. That enraged, grief-stricken parent wouldn't just pose a threat to the prosecutor or to the defendant; s/he would pose a threat to the defense attorney sitting right next to the defendant (sorry if that sounds a little self-absorbed of me, but I really don't want to get shot) or to the court reporter and to all the other bystanders in the room. Brian Nichols did shoot a court reporter and a judge.

This bill (which, sadly, looks like it will become law without much thought) is a solution looking for a problem. I can see no real purpose, no real benefit, and no upside to this bill.


Unknown said...

Thanks, Sarah. All right if I link to you? I won't wait for an answer because this post is perfect for my blog. I can't resist.

I love what you said about the inequality of allowing this nonsense for the prosecutors but not the defense. I also love what you said about more guns will not make the courtroom safer.

S said...

Mike, I would have been surprised if you hadn't wanted to blog about this. Guns and court is right up your alley!

I wonder if some of your pro-gun folks will see that my objections are not just anti-gun (or anti-prosecuturo).

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