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Cellphone Ban at Courthouse Leads to Confusion ... and Some Creativity

By Erin Meyer | April 15, 2013 10:58am | Updated on April 15, 2013 12:41pm

COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — Looking bewildered, Donald Campbell waited in a line to stash his cellphone in an electronics kiosk Monday morning while the chances he would make it in time for his nephew's court date grew slim.

"Could you hold my cellphone while I go to court?" the 54-year-old asked a reporter. "I don't have enough money for the machine." 

A ban on cellphones and other Internet-capable devices at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse took effect Monday morning amid a flurry of swear words and people scrambling to store their cellphones or return them to their cars. 

The new rule also gave birth to a cottage industry of sorts outside the courthouse, where some entrepreneurs offered to hold phones for a little cash.

Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans first announced the ban last December.

For Anastacio Riuas, who spends most days serving up snacks and lunch from his food truck on California Avenue, the phone ban spells opportunity. He added phone storage to his menu on Monday.

"It's good for business," Riuas said, handing a cellphone in a baggie to a guy named Terrell, who'd paid $2.50 an hour earlier for Riuas to hold the device while he visited with his probation officer.

Inside, officials said the ban implementation went smoothly — although one man tried to pull a Maxwell Smart move by sneaking a phone into his shoe. He got caught.

The sprawling campus at 26th Street and California is the largest and one of the busiest criminal courthouses in the country.

"Do they want me to miss my court date?" asked Tiara Ward, 22, who lent Campbell $1 so he would have the $3 it costs to store a phone in county kiosk.

Sheriff deputies were stationed outside the courthouse, calling out, "No cellphones in the courthouse," as a steady stream of people marched toward the entrance. 

People due in court waited in a long line snaking around the entrance, all waiting to pass through metal detectors. Some had to retreat to kiosks after getting stopped with phones.

The ban on phones — and their built-in cameras —  is meant to protect witnesses and victims testifying in court from intimidation, Evans said.

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

"No juror or witness should ever be afraid because a defendant's supporters are taking their pictures," Evans said.

People who drive to the courthouse will be asked to keep their phones and electronics in their cars. The courthouse will have limited storage available for those who arrive by public transportation, according to a statement.

Sheriff's deputies have reminded people passing through security for at least several weeks about the impending ban.

Evans acknowledged the ban is "an inconvenience for the public" in his statement, but said sheriff's deputies have not been able to control the use of phones in court.

"I wish it were possible to just say to the people coming to court, 'Please turn off your phones and devices.' The simple fact is we have tried that, and it does not work," Evans said. "People either ignore or refuse to comply with the judges' directions; and the Sheriff's staff has confirmed that their deputies cannot prevent the misuse of these devices in the courtrooms."

The ban was originally intended to go into effect in mid-January but was pushed back to provide a "grace period."

The ban will take effect at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California Avenue, one of the busiest courthouses in the country, and at 12 other Cook County courthouses once they receive storage capabilities.

In a January order, Evans expanded the list of those exempt from the ban to include domestic violence advocates and victims.

Others who are exempt are those who need electronics for disabilities, attorneys, current or former judges, members of the media, and city, state and federal employees.

Although some people were irked by the ban when it was first announced, others agreed it was necessary to protect witnesses.