Courthouse Cellphone Ban a Hangup for Some Residents

By Wendell Hutson on December 28, 2012 2:28pm | Updated on January 8, 2013 6:27am

CHICAGO—When Angel Johnson goes to meet with her probation officer at the George N. Leighton Criminal Courts Building she has to take a bus from her North Lawndale home because she does not drive.

Now she'll have to lug around a roll of quarters too because of starting Jan. 14, 2013 all cell phones and other electronic devices are banned from Cook County criminal courthouses.

A total of 13 county courthouses are affected.

The ban means Johnson must load up on quarters to use a payphone inside the building, but must also empty her pockets upon arrival at the security check point, which she is not too excited about.

“How are people supposed to call their ride when they leave the courthouse if they can’t bring their cellphones inside?” said Johnson, a beautician from the West Side. “I do not drive when I come down here [to court] and you mean to tell me I will have to bring quarters to use a pay phone? That’s messed up.”

There will be no lockers for storage and people won't be able to leave their phones at the security check point.

The ban was put in place to provide greater protection to witnesses and judges, said Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans.

According to Evans, gang members have taken pictures of judges and witnesses with their phones  and have even texted testimony to their friends awaiting trial.

“The court is sending a strong message to gang members and others that any attempts to intimidate witnesses, jurors, and judges in court will not be permitted,” said Evans.  “The ban will help to ensure that justice is properly done by preserving the integrity of testimony and maintaining court decorum.”

There were no visible signs alerting the public about the ban next month at the courthouse as of Thursday and many were unaware of it.

The ban not only serves as an inconvenience, said Lindell Collier, a shipping clerk from the Austin community on the West Side, but it also poses safety issues.

“There are people who are disabled and may need medical assistance. By not allowing people their cell phones inside it creates a unsafe environment should an emergency come up,” explained Collier, 51, who was at the courthouse to support a friend.

“What if I had an emergency while riding the bus here or riding the bus home? I would have to get off the bus and find a pay phone.”

However, Debra Newman, 28, who lives in south suburban Richton Park, said the ban is a good idea if it protects witnesses.

“We can’t have people being afraid to come to court and testify for fear that their identity will go viral by someone snapping a picture with their phone,” said Newman as she arrived Thursday at the criminal courts building, 2625 S. California Ave., for jury duty.

Lawyers, courthouse employees, law enforcement officers and journalists are exempt from the ban. And anyone violating the ban could face prosecution for contempt of court.

The ban, said Josephine Jackson, a homemaker from Humboldt Park, does more than create a safety issue for those unable to use their phones in emergency situations, but it could also discourage people from going to court.

“Families often come to criminal courthouses if a trial is going on for a loved one especially if they are the defendant,” said Jackson, who was serving jury duty. “So instead of the whole family coming...only a few might start coming.”

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