Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Plan to Arm Prosecutors a Bad Idea

North Carolina legislators are considering a bill that would permit prosecutors to carry guns while in the courtroom. As a former prosecutor, I find the the idea of armed prosecutors repugnant and potentially prejudicial to those standing trial.

In Pennsylvania for instance, police officers who testify at trial can not wear their uniform or sidearm because jurors might infer a greater amount of authority from the badge, gun or uniform. If a juror observes an assistant district attorney packing a gun, could jurors impute greater dangerousness to the accused.

If North Carolina is worried about its prosecutors, and there is no question that prosecutors can be the target of threats or even violence, then the state should beef-up courtroom security, keep guns out of the courtroom and better train security guards.

North Carolina Senate Bill 141 would require district attorneys, prosecutors and investigators to obtain a valid concealed handgun permit or maintain a basic law enforcement training certification. They would then be exempt from the ban on carrying concealed weapons on certain premises, such as the county courthouse.

District Attorney Rick Shaffer acknowledges the inherent danger of prosecuting those suspected of committing violent crimes.

"There are times that prosecutors are dealing with very dangerous people," he told the Greesboro News-Record. "I've had death threats. It's an occupational hazard."

Permitting prosecutors to carry guns in the courtroom seems like a solution in search of a problem. How many times in North Carolina, or around the country for that matter, are prosecutors subject to violent attacks in the courtroom, an attack that would necessitate the use of deadly forces?

Armed attacks in the courtroom are often the result of a defendant wresting control of a gun from an armed law enforcement officer. Those guns are taken from individuals who are trained to be focused on protecting the people in the courtroom. Would an armed prosecutor be vulnerable when a defendant or other person in the courtroom is determined to get her gun while the prosecutor is focused on her notes, law books, evidence, witnesses, the judge or jury?

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