Update on the Cook County Court’s cell phone ban

The ban on camera cell phones in all Cook County Courthouses (except the Daley Center) was supposed to go into effect last Monday.  However, Chief Judge Timothy Evans flinched at the last moment and instead instituted a three-month “grace period” — during which time people will get warnings and there will be stricter enforcement prohibiting phones in the courtroom — before implementing the ban in April.

Today, Eric Zorn has a piece in the Chicago Tribune about the foolishness of the ban (which was expanded to include laptops, tablets and any other electronic device) — and, as you can see from my previous blog post, I am in 100% agreement with him.  Mr. Zorn wrote the piece after Chief Judge Evans spoke with the Tribune to discuss the controversial move. Not surprisingly, it turns out that the ban was put into effect without any actual evidence of wrongdoing — Evans could not point to a single person who was caught using a cell phone in a courthouse for an improper purpose.  He also could not point out to any intermediate measures that the County has tried before instituting an outright ban.  And, it sounds like he was not informed about how a ban on these devices would affect the general public.

Because of the Tribune’s new paywall, I am going to cut and paste a key sections of  Zorn’s opinion piece, so you can read the key part:

In a conversation Thursday, Evans elaborated. Though without naming specific trials or cases in which portable electronics have been a problem, he said judges and sheriff’s deputies have told him it’s become increasingly common for those affiliated with gangs to use mobile technology to intimidate witnesses and other participants in trials. And that sheriff’s deputies report they’re unable to control the problem.

I was hoping for actual horror stories and statistics rather than hypotheticals and unconfirmed anecdotes. But assuming this has become a significant problem, I asked Evans what intermediate steps have the courts taken to crack down on it — short of a ban.

For instance, have they tried confiscating all electronic devices that become visible in a courtroom viewing gallery, then imposing heavy fines on violators?

Evans said he wasn’t sure, but that those who use recording equipment in a courtroom without permission are subject to prosecution for contempt of court.

How often has Cook County filed such charges related to cellphone usage?

Again, Evans said he wasn’t sure but that it was “a good question.”

It is. Because the proposed ban — even though it contains more than a dozen exemptions for reporters, jurors, attorneys, those with special medical needs and others and will not be strictly enforced at the Daley Center — stands to be massively disruptive, particularly for those who take public transportation to courthouses.

Available storage lockers in lobbies are few, not large enough for bigger computing devices, and reportedly are frequently broken. Security lines are already long and many people will end up paying the price for the alleged transgressions of the few.

Seriously, if there is a problem with cell phone cameras in felony courtrooms, I see no reason why the deputy sheriffs who are assigned to those rooms can’t handle it.

Typically, a felony room has multiple sheriffs present to handle the lock-up and courtroom.  Others sheriffs are assigned to walk through the corridors.  These men and women are well aware when gang members are in court and when to expect trouble.  They are capable of enforcing a ban on photography in the courthouse and preventing witness intimidation.

I hate saying this, because I have been a big fan of Chief Judge Evans for many years.  Overall, I think he has done a terrific job.  But this ban was misguided, based on misinformation, and probably was instigated by felony judges, most of whom are older and don’t seem especially comfortable with technology.  Instead of fearfully trying to hold back progress, the courts should instead be using technology to help the public.  The courthouse in Lake County, IL has wi-fi.  Why not Cook County?  DuPage County has a website where the public can get information of court dates, and another site where attorneys can look through entire scanned court files.  In Cook County, we need carbon paper to make duplicate copies of orders and the contents of court files are often misplaced.

Why is Cook County pining for the 1980s in the year 2013?

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