The citizens of Guilford County appear to be very slow learners in at least one regard: Four years after cell phones were banned for visitors to the county’s two courthouses, people entering the buildings are still bringing phones to the security checkpoints in droves.
That number doesn’t appear to be decreasing one bit as time passes either. Despite a wealth of citizen notification dating back to 2013, plenty of signage all around and years of time for people to get the message, in 2017, there were 19,103 people who attempted to pass through courthouse security checkpoints with their phones.
Guilford County put lockboxes in front of the courthouses so visitors would have somewhere to store their phones and other banned items, but many people still walk by those boxes carrying phones and other items that aren’t allowed in.
Those 19,000-plus cases are ones where phones were “found on person” – meaning the visitor got up to the metal detector or X-ray machine with the item and had already passed the signs and the lockboxes and had ignored any verbal instructions to not bring a phone inside.
A report from the Guilford County Security Department for the calendar year 2017 also reveals that plenty of people tried to enter the courthouses with worse: brass knuckles, knives, razors, tools that could be used as weapons, drugs and drug paraphernalia.
Guilford County Security Director Jeff Fowler, who’s had that job for 19 years, said he and his staff hoped that, once people got used to the cell phone ban, the numbers of people attempting to bring phones into the courthouse would start to drop. But he said the number stayed roughly the same from 2016 to 2017. Fowler said it’s somewhat astonishing that, four years after the ban – and after four years of posted signs, verbal notices, news articles and TV stories about the rule – that number doesn’t drop.
Guilford County didn’t track the number of cell phones found at security checkpoints at the courthouse in High Point in 2016, but it did track that number for the Greensboro courthouse that year, before tracking the number for both courthouses in 2017.
In 2016, there were 12,407 people who attempted to bring cell phones into the county’s courthouse in downtown Greensboro. Fowler said that indicates the number of people trying to bring phones in hasn’t dropped.
“If we had included High Point, it would be roughly the same,” he said of the overall number based on the statistics the county collected for the Greensboro courthouse in 2016.
Visitors with cell phones, cameras, iPads, laptops, weapons and other contraband cause hold-ups in the lines and increases the need for security at checkpoints. Having a banned item usually means that person must leave and come back through the lines – often long lines – and it creates other hassles for security officers.
The cell phone ban for the county’s courthouses in Greensboro and High Point was announced in 2013 and went into effect at the beginning of February 2014. Court officials were, among other things, concerned with phones ringing in court and were worried that, for instance, pictures of witnesses testifying against gang activity might be used to target that person for retaliation.
Fowler said people often try to enter the courthouse carrying more than one phone.
“One person had five phones,” Fowler said. “I think that record will stand.”
He said security officers at the checkpoints hear all kinds of excuses such as, “I didn’t think the signs applied to me.”
When it comes to cell phones, staff informs the visitor that phones are not allowed and sends them away, but when security officers find knives or other weapons, drugs or drug paraphernalia, they notify law enforcement officers who then decide what action to take.
Most people entering the courthouses remember to leave their illegal drugs at home, but not everyone. In 2017, eight people attempted to bring illegal drugs or paraphernalia through the security checkpoints. While the metal detector doesn’t detect drugs, searches of bags, jacket pockets and personal items do turn the drugs up from time to time. That number, eight, was down from 21 instances of drugs or drug paraphernalia the previous year, and also down from 23 in 2012.
Fowler said checkpoint staff hears all types of excuses if drugs or paraphernalia are found, things such as, “These aren’t my pants.” Or the offender will act surprised and say, “How did that get in there?” Fowler said.
Others have been known to simply turn and make a run for it.
In 2017, there were 1,633 knives found on people entering the courthouse, which was down from 2,086 in 2016. That number was 729 in 2012.
As for razors, 342 people tried to enter carrying those in 2017, down from 555 in 2016. That number was 314 in 2012.
Most people remember not to bring brass knuckles into the courthouses but, each year, an average of seven people try.
The number of people bringing mace, also forbidden in the county’s courthouses, was down by about half in 2017. There were 892 times in 2016 that people attempted to bring mace into the courthouse but that number dropped to 432 in 2017. That was still higher than the 312 times it happened in 2012.
In 2017, there was a dramatic drop in the number of banned tools that made it to the security checkpoint. There were 2,005 instances in 2016 and only 488 in 2017. In 2012, the number was 226.
Overall, contraband items, not including cell phones, have stayed steady at between 5,000 and 7,000 items a year since 2012.
The number of people passing through the security checkpoint has remained remarkably constant over the past six years. In every year from 2012 to 2017, there were between 1 million and 1.1 million visitor trips through those checkpoints.
Security officers working the doors have seen just about everything over the years. One man had a packaged condom wrapped in aluminum foil in his pants and set off the metal detector. His girlfriend – in line with him – went off on the man and the two got into a shouting match at the checkpoint.