Court Searches Yield The Unexpected

February 20, 1991|By Maria Archangelo | Maria Archangelo,Staff writer

WESTMINSTER — Former Carroll Sheriff Grover N. "Sam" Sensabaugh has seen a lot in his 36 years of law enforcement, but even he is surprised by things he has seen since becoming a county courthouse bailiff.

"I'm learning things about the people of this county I never thought I would know," said Sensabaugh, who spends much of his day poking through the pockets, pocketbooks and briefcases of visitors to the courthouse.

The metal detectors installed in the old courthouse and annex last fall are there to protect judges, jurors and courthouse employees.

Many counties were moved to improve courthouse security when a judge from Hagerstown, Washington County, received a letter bomb more than a year ago.

But in order for the security system to work, bailiffs also must check the contents of all bags and pocketbooks to make sure no weapons are hidden in them, said Thomas E. Veditz, the retired state police lieutenant colonel who coordinates the county's bailiff program. There is a pool of 16 bailiffs who work part time; all areformer state policemen.

Since the metal detectors went into service, bailiffs and deputies from the Sheriff's Department have found guns, knives, chemical mace and illegal drugs.

But their discoveriesalso have ranged from the unappetizing -- half-eaten doughnuts and brownies with all the walnuts picked off -- to the risque -- sex toys and devices.

When it comes to the weaponry, the bailiffs are trained to hold any legal weapons for courthouse patrons until they are finished with their courthouse business.

"No knife of any kind gets into the courtroom, no matter what," said Sensabaugh. He added that the courthouse is often occupied with defendants who are prisoners from the Carroll County Detention Center and people charged with violent crimes who are out on bail.

Guns have been found on three people. The people had permits, said Bailiff James J. McBride, a 26-year-veteran of the state police, but the weapons were held.

McBride saidthat the knives, guns or other weapons bailiffs find are held in a cabinet with the owner's name or number, in case they forget to come back and get them.

"With this being a rural county, you get a lot of people carrying knives around with them," McBride said.

But whenbailiffs find the less lethal but more embarrassing items, these veteran law enforcement officers sometimes blush.

"You would not believe the things you'll find in some pocketbooks," said Sensabaugh, smiling.

The piercing, high-pitched beep of the metal detector alertsthe bailiffs that the person walking through may have a weapon.

More often, the beeper is set off by courthouse patrons' earrings, belt buckles and car keys.

Rather than have courthouse visitors disrobing in the middle of the courthouse, the bailiffs use a metal-detecting wand that emits beeps and whirrs when metal is found.

A few times bailiffs have confiscated marijuana since the metal detector was installed. The drug was discovered when visitors cleaned out their pockets and voluntarily placed a plastic bag or metal pipe in a tray before entering the detector.

"Most of the time, they just say, 'Oops,'" said Bill Holley, a 25-year veteran of the state police.

Holley said the visitor is then read his rights by the bailiffs -- who have been given special police powers -- and placed under arrest. None of the drug possession cases has gone to court yet.

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