Official Opinion 2017-5

December 5, 2017
To: 

Commissioner, Georgia Department of Public Safety

Re: 

While Georgia law permits certain law enforcement personnel and others to carry firearms into a courthouse building, a judge may still control who may enter and carry firearms within his or her own courtroom.

You have asked whether Department of Public Safety (“DPS”) law enforcement officers may, pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑130(c.1)(1), carry their service weapons and handguns into courtrooms while performing their official duties.[1]  For the reasons that follow, I conclude that this statute, as amended by the General Assembly during the 2017 session, permits DPS officers to carry their service weapons and handguns into courthouses, but does not authorize their entry into courtrooms where the courthouse’s security plan and/or judges of that court have directed otherwise.  See 2017 Ga. Laws 555, 560-63 (H.B. 292, Sec. 7).

Generally, under Georgia law, a person may not carry a weapon or a long gun as defined by statute into a courthouse unless they fall within certain statutorily created exceptions.  See O.C.G.A. §§ 16‑11‑127(b)(2), 16‑11‑127(d) and (e).  A “courthouse” is defined as “a building or annex occupied by judicial courts and containing rooms in which judicial proceedings are held.” O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑130(c.1)(1)(B).  In relation to courthouses, however, the General Assembly in the aforementioned legislation created a specific exception permitting a number of statutorily-defined persons to carry firearms into courthouses, including “active law enforcement officers.”  In doing so, the law now provides:

Notwithstanding a security plan implemented by law enforcement personnel . . . active law enforcement officers referred to in subsection (c) of this Code section shall be authorized to carry their service handguns and weapons in any courthouse if they are wearing the assigned uniform of their law enforcement office or have the official badge and identification credentials issued to them by their law enforcement office displayed and plainly visible on their person while in the performance of their official duties.

O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑130(c.1)(3).  DPS officers are “active law enforcement officers” as defined and included in this statute.  O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑130(c)(2)(B).  Officers falling outside this exception may instead be required to place their weapons into holding upon entry into restricted or screened areas of a courthouse.  O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑130(c.1)(2).

Under Georgia law:

[T]he cardinal rule of statutory construction “look[s] diligently for the intention of the General Assembly,” Judicial Council v. Brown & Gallo, LLC, 288 Ga. 294, 296-97 (2010), and “the ‘golden rule’ of statutory construction . . . requires us to follow the literal language of the statute ‘unless it produces contradiction, absurdity, or such an inconvenience as to insure that the legislature meant something else.’”  Telecom*USA v. Collins, 260 Ga. 362, 363 (1990) (quoting Dept. of Transp. v. City of Atlanta, 255 Ga. 124, 137 (1985) (Clarke, J., concurring specially)).

2016 Op. Att’y Gen. 2016‑5.  The plain language of O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑130(c.1)(3) authorizes active DPS officers, among others, to carry service weapons and handguns into courthouses without the requirement that their service weapons and handguns be placed into holding upon entry into the restricted or screened area of the courthouse.  See O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑130(c.1).  While the law does not require that DPS officers be permitted to carry service weapons and handguns into any specific, named areas of the courthouse, the language of the statute and the authority provided in the statute is broad and there is no basis to read into the statute restrictions on particular areas of a courthouse.  The law grants that broad access “[n]otwithstanding a security plan implemented by law enforcement personnel.”  O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑130(c.1)(3).

However, that conclusion does not end the inquiry.  A courthouse building may contain any number of county offices, but the actual courtrooms are governed by different standards than other locations within a courthouse.  Under Georgia law, “Every court has power to . . .  preserve and enforce order in its immediate presence and, as near thereto as is necessary, to prevent interruption, disturbance, or hindrance to its proceedings [and] . . .  control, in the furtherance of justice, the conduct of its officers and all other persons connected with a judicial proceeding before it, in every matter appertaining thereto.”  O.C.G.A. § 15‑1‑3(1), (4).  In 1973, this office addressed the meaning of these provisions under the previous Georgia Code of 1933, concluding that:

The above quoted law clearly illuminates the fact that the power to provide security of the courtroom has been granted to the court.  Code 24-2813 and 24-3351 (the last section unofficially codified as Ga. Code Ann. 24-3379) provide the "tools" which allow the court to implement its authority . . . From the law discussed above, the following may be gleaned.  The power to control the courtroom is granted to the court.  This power may be implemented, if necessary, by use of the sheriff, his deputies, or bailiffs appointed either by the court or by the sheriff.  It is, therefore, my official opinion that the court, assisted by the sheriff of the county, is responsible for undertaking measures necessary to insure the safety of the court during a [court] proceeding.

1973 Op. Att’y Gen. 73-57 (1973 Ga. AG LEXIS 57.)

This interpretation of Georgia law is consistent with the concept that the judiciary has inherent authority to control conduct in courtrooms, including security.  A court has the inherent authority to resolve conflicts between the Constitution and statutory law.  Lathrop v. Deal, 301 Ga. 408, 432 (2017).  In doing so, it must be recognized that the powers of the legislative and judicial branches are separate and distinct.  Ga. Const., Art. I, Sec. II, Para. III.  This doctrine of separation of powers “invests those officials charged with the duty of administering justice according to law with all necessary authority to efficiently and completely discharge those duties the performance of which is by the constitution committed to the judiciary, and to maintain the dignity and independence of the courts.”  Lovett v. Sandersville R.R., 199 Ga. 238, 239-240 (1945).  It is also well‑established that courts have the power to control conduct in their proceedings, which includes security. See generally O.C.G.A. § 15-1-3; see also In re Judicial Qualifications Comm’n Formal Advisory Opinion No. 239, 300 Ga. 291, 302 (2016) (providing that courts are “charged with adopting and maintaining reasonable measures to provide security…”) (quotations and citations omitted); Weldon v. State, 297 Ga. 537, 540-41 (2015) (recognizing court’s authority to implement security measures); O.C.G.A. § 15-16-10(a)(10) (requiring the sheriff with jurisdiction over the courthouse to create a comprehensive security plan, but maintaining that the plan must be approved by the chief judge).  See also State v. LaFrance, 471 A.2d 340, 344-346 (N.H. 1983) (“[I]t is clear that trial judges, subject to [appellate] review, have authority under the judicial power of the constitution to control the wearing of firearms in the courtroom.”).

Given the above provisions, I conclude that the General Assembly in the exercise of its legislative authority has authorized active law enforcement officers under the circumstances prescribed in O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑130(c.1) to carry weapons into a courthouse building without restriction in the areas within the building that this may be done.  However, a judge of the court may, in the exercise of his or her constitutional, statutory and inherent authority, determine whether those same law enforcement officers may carry their weapons into a courtroom.

Prepared by:

Meghan Davidson

Assistant Attorney General

 

[1] Your request attaches a memorandum from the Sheriff of Glynn County stating that outside law enforcement personnel are not authorized to enter any Glynn County courtroom, court clerk’s office, or other designated areas of the Glynn County courthouse while armed.  Your request also attaches an Order from the Chief Judge of the Superior Court of Glynn County prohibiting all persons other than the Sheriff and his deputies from possessing firearms in the actual courtrooms unless authorized in writing by a judge of the court.