LEWISTON – Courthouse doors had been open seven minutes when the first person with a knife walked in.

Security screeners took the small folded blade, in the pocket of an older man, and returned it three minutes later when he left, business finished.

Most days the man would have breezed in uninterrupted, little knife unnoticed.

He happened to visit Lewiston District Court on the morning of a random check.

A very random check.

The court doesn’t have staff to operate the X-ray machine and metal detector here every day. Or even once a week.

No state court in Maine does.

Among Maine’s 41 courthouses, visitor screening was done only 74 times in all of 2004. Screening took place in 12 courts, mostly in Lewiston and Portland. Twenty-nine courthouses were never screened.

Those searches at the door turned up illegal switchblades, six guns, hundreds of knives, drugs, even martial arts throwing stars.

According to the head of Maine’s court security, what’s scary is what officers fear they’re missing.

Maine officials acknowledge the state probably does less weapon screening on people coming into its courthouses than any other state in the country.

The goal with $100,000 provided by the Legislature last spring: to entry-screen visitors 2 percent of the time, systemwide, for 12 months. Prior to that, screening was even more sporadic, and often in response to threats.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley said she wants to stretch that money, recently renewed for the coming fiscal year, into something more than what will average 10 visits per courthouse a year.

“I’m terrified that something horrible is going to happen,” she said. “I can just hope we can stay ahead of whatever tragedy is out there.”

It’s not that Maine’s courthouses don’t have the necessary screening equipment – Homeland Security funds have been used to buy metal detectors and X-ray machines. There’s no one to regularly flick them on and channel people through.

Anticipating a state-by-state comparison, Saufley said earlier this spring, “I already know Maine is at the bottom of the national barrel for court security.”

The issue won’t improve without money. She’s asked for more each year since 2002.

A current $1 million request to substantially increase court security is sitting in a pile in Augusta, waiting for consideration at the very end of the session in the unlikely event money is left over.

“Unfortunately, I call this management by crisis because they’re not going to put money in until something happens,” said state security chief Michael Coty.

Raising the security alarm

Potential for violence exists in any courtroom, according to Saufley.

Almost without exception, people don’t want to be there. Typically, money, freedom or family is on the line.

“People have come to a courthouse because something has gone wrong in their life,” said Saufley, head of Maine’s judicial system for four years. “They are distressed, they are frequently angry, they are often afraid. When you’re in a court hallway, you’re surrounded by people whose stress levels are high, by definition, higher than they are in public places.”

Maine doesn’t keep statistics on courtroom episodes involving weapons. Tracking that is something Saufley hopes to put in place.

So far there are anecdotal near-misses.

• In a southern Maine court, a judge recognized that a man there for a civil matter was also wanted for arrest. When the man realized he was about to be taken in, he tossed his jacket to a friend. A security guard checked the coat and found a gun.

• A man inside a northern county courtroom for a child protection case announced in the middle of a hearing that he’d forgotten to mention a gun in his pocket. He was escorted out of the courtroom.

• In Machias three weeks ago, a man who had spent the morning in court, went across the street during recess, phoned his lawyer and said he might kill himself. Police surrounded the building, got the man out and took a gun off him. It’s unknown whether he had it all morning.

It only became a crime to carry a gun into a Maine courthouse last month.

“We really don’t like saying it, you don’t want to tell bad people that this is the case, but I believe Maine does less entry screening coming into courthouses than any other state in the nation,” said Ted Glessner, the person who oversees court operations in Maine.

Incidents like the triple-homicide in Atlanta three months ago raised the profile of court security across the country. A defendant in a rape case there allegedly killed a judge, court reporter and deputy after assaulting another deputy, getting the key to her locker and taking her gun.

When the defendant allegedly overpowered the first deputy, the scene played out before a security camera. No one sprang to her aid because no one was watching the live feed.

That could happen here: “We don’t have people to staff our cameras” regularly, Saufley said.

Few courthouses in Maine are even wired with security cameras.

The control room at Lewiston District Court has a bay of five televisions: four show angles in and around the building and one shows the Violations’ Bureau up the block.

One person watches all the screens most of the time. “I consider it to be a very important post,” said local security supervisor Tony Vitale. But there are times it’s unmanned.

Saufley said most defendants brought into state court are escorted by an unarmed officer into a holding area.

“Almost always there are two officers,” she said.

Coty, sitting in the same room as the chief justice, shook his head to correct her. No, that isn’t always the case.

“That’s chilling. But they’re always shackled? Please tell me they’re always shackled?”

No, he said. That’s not always the case either.

100 people, seven knives, two knitting needles

Entry screening appears to be the biggest security issue for now, Saufley said, because it’s fundamental to everything else. The courthouse perimeter has to be clear before the court can tackle more subtle issues like the number of guards needed per courtroom (currently just one) and the number of guards patrolling the hallways (currently none.)

Security officers now are only cut loose to screen visitors when their assigned courtroom is closed for the day. The irony: Only on days when fewer people are coming through the door is there staff to check visitors for weapons.

In her 2005 State of the Judiciary speech, Saufley told lawmakers: “We cannot yet assure that those who are threatened with violence, and those who fear for their lives, will be safe inside the halls of justice.”

“It breaks my heart,” she said, when she walks into a courthouse and sees a metal detector unplugged, pushed up against the wall.

She’s aware of the danger in being so public about the court system’s lack of security: “By announcing it, I may be making the risk even worse. I lose quite a bit of sleep over that.”

But not talking about it means the money won’t come to fix the problem.

To prep for a day of screening at Lewiston District Court on June 3, guards taped paper “Entry screening in progress” signs to the outside door just before 8 a.m. and opened a typically locked room off the entrance that holds an X-ray machine and conveyor belt, a standing metal detector, several handheld metal-detecting wands and a few chairs.

Harry Stevenson, the former head of security at Wrangler jeans, stationed himself behind the X-ray.

Geoff Low, a retired Maine State Police dispatcher, took the spot at the door. Plastic dishes for people to unload car keys, wallets, cigarettes and change were arranged nearby.

The process was just like the airport, except no one takes off their shoes.

The first person through was a woman with two children seeking a protection from abuse order. A backpack, purse and kid toys went on the conveyor.

Throughout the morning, a few people expressed surprise with the extra measures, but everyone complied.

They kept the thin flow of people moving quickly and the mood light.

One man set off the metal detector – “I always go off, I don’t know why” – and moved out to the hallway, ready for Stevenson to graze a wand over his body.

It’s “that magnetic personality,” the guard offered.

Stevenson said later, you give friendly, you get friendly.

Two days before, Low and Stevenson had visited the Farmington District Court to screen for its first time. They were met with lots of “what’s this?”

Back in Lewiston: “How are you this morning?” Low greeted one woman with spiky hair. “Could be better, right?”

“I wouldn’t be here if it was better,” she said.

Before lunch at 11:30 in Lewiston, they checked more than 100 different people and collected seven knives, one pair of knitting needles, three Leatherman tools and a box cutter.

Two people had walked into the building, spotted the screeners and immediately turned around.

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