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Is the security screening procedure at Washington courthouses constitutional?

Posted by Brian C. Zuanich | Jan 05, 2020 | 0 Comments

You walk into a courthouse and pass through security. You remove your coat, take off your backpack or purse, and take everything out of your pockets. You walk through a metal detector and the items you've removed (i.e. wallets, cell phones, etc.) are individually screened. 

This happens thousands of times every across Washington State, but is it constitutional?

Surprisingly, the courts haven't decided this issue—until now. 

In State v. Griffiths the Court of Appeals ruled that the typical courthouse security screening procedure probably complies with the Washington Constitution. 

Larry Griffith walks into the courthouse but doesn't leave

Lanny Griffith went to the Chelan County Superior Courthouse to pay his fine. He never got the chance.

Before passing through security, Griffith removed his heavy coat (as directed) and emptied his pockets. The security officer (Mattix) found a small back of methamphetamine in one of the coat pockets. The State charged Griffith with possession of a controlled substance.

In a nutshell, search and seizure law in Washington boils down to the following principle: the government can't search you without a warrant, unless prosecutors can establish a valid exception to the warrant requirement.

One such exception—under federal law at least—is the “special needs” exception.  In some cases, the government has right to search you because it has a “special” need beyond normal law enforcement—seizing weapons at airports and stopping the flow of illegal drugs over the border being the most well-known.  That's why you have to submit to intensive security screening at the airport even if TSA doesn't believe you're actually carrying a gun.   

Washington, however, doesn't recognize special needs searches—the Washington Supreme Court made this clear in a 2008 decision, York v. Wahkiakum School District.

But our supreme court has suggested that warrantless courthouse searches absent any individualized suspicion are still acceptable under Article 1, Section 7 of the Washington Constitution. At least that's what the Court of Appeals held in Griffith.

Courthouse screening procedures are probably constitutional

Why? Because they're minimally invasive (relative to a urine test or intensive pat-down, that is) and their purpose is to “protect the safety of those who work in or depend on the justice system, and to prevent violence that would undermine the rule of law.”

To be valid, a warrantless courthouse screening search has to be “narrowly tailored,” which means in practice that a particular search has to be consistent with the screening policy in effect at the time of the search. That's what the Court of Appeals couldn't figure out based on the evidence presented at the trial court. 

At the Chelan courthouse, security officers are trained to have people take off their coats and remove anything that feels “rigid or hard,” because it could be a weapon. Mattix testified at the motion to suppress hearing that he reached inside Griffith's coat pocket because he felt a hard object that turned out to be a cell phone.

But the police officers who arrived on scene testified that the security officer told them that Griffith had already removed his cell phone before handing over his coat. 

If Mattix felt what he thought could be gun, he could legally go inside Griffith's coat.  But if he didn't, then he couldn't. 

So the Court of Appeals kicked the case back down to the trial court, to determine whether the security officer had complied with the courthouse security policy.

Will the Washington Supreme Court resolve this issue?

Does Griffith conflict with the Washington Supreme Court's earlier decision in York

Is there now a special needs exception to the warrant requirement in Washington for courthouse searches?  For other types of searches?

This case—or at least this issue—seems destined for the Washington Supreme Court. 

About us:  Zuanich Law specializes in criminal and civil appeals, including DOL and family law appeals.  We also handle post-conviction relief, including vacating, expunging, and sealing criminal records.  Subscribe to our weekly criminal law email newsletter. 

About the Author

Brian C. Zuanich

I am the managing partner at Zuanich Law. I am a former prosecutor and insurance defense attorney, and have practiced law in state and federal courts for over a decade.

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