CHICAGO — A man who says he gets "irritated by people constantly on their phones" on public transit took matters into his own hands — and now faces criminal charges for riding with a cellphone jammer on the CTA.
Rogers Park resident Dennis Nicholl, 63, an accountant who takes the Red Line to work every day at the University of Illinois Hospital, appeared in court Wednesday to face one felony count of unlawful interference with a public utility after he was arrested for operating a cellphone jammer on the CTA.
"He was irritated by people constantly on their phones," said Charles Lauer, Nicholl's attorney, adding that his client used the jammer to get some peace and quiet during his daily commute.
Chicago commuters were divided on the cellphone jammer's motives after news of his arrest broke, raising the question: is the jammer a villain, or a much-needed vigilante?
Rider Jarrod Emerson said while he could see blocking cell signals as both heroic and villainous, he saw it mostly as an "act of rebellion."
Emerson recalled a time when his friend was studying for a class and reading a history book while on the train while another man talked loudly on his cellphone speaker.
Annoyed, Emerson said his friend eventually turned around to the man having a boisterous conversation and began reading his history book aloud.
Bele Woldyes, who also lives in Rogers Park, agreed with Emerson, calling the act of blocking cell signals a "good idea" when it came to deterring loud talkers.
"Can't blame him," user BossLady wrote on Neighborhood Square. "He probably wanted a moment of peace without a having to hear someone yapping in his ear. Have you ever had to sit behind someone ramble on their phone? It makes you want to commit a felony."
"If people can blast music from their phone and have loud conversations and not have felony charges brought against them then this guy should be able to jam signals," Facebook user Andy Gallas wrote on a story about Nicholl's arrest.
But Jace Shue, a Rogers Park resident who lives near Loyola, said she thought using a cellphone jammer "serves no other function other than limiting peoples' freedoms."
"In my opinion it shouldn't be used, it doesn't do anything other than reduce annoyances," Shue said. "If something dangerous happened and I couldn't use my phone, I just feel like that's dangerous."
When the CTA rolled out expanded wireless internet and 4G service on train lines late last year, the transit agency's president said the move would "increase system safety measures by providing more reliable communication between CTA personnel and emergency responders."
Abdu Alali, who lives in Edgewater but goes to school downtown, said he thinks it was a "jerk move" to use a phone jammer.
As a frequent commuter with long waits at times, Alali said he was a heavy phone user, especially when it came to the Red Line, because he tries to find ways to pass the time during his daily trips.
"I use my phone a lot," Alali said. "I use it to kill time, chat with friends, play games, that kind of stuff. So I think it's a jerk move if I can't use it."
In 2011, Metra implemented "quiet cars" on all its commuter trains with the following rules during rush hour:
The rules are simple: No cell phone calls. If passengers must answer their phones, they should make it brief or move to the vestibule or another car. Conversations are discouraged; if they must be held they should be short and in subdued voices. All electronic devices must be muted, and headphones should not be loud enough for anyone else to hear.
If the divide over the CTA's cellphone jammer is any indication, it may be time for the city transit agency to consider something similar.
Facebook user Zeljko Dakic summed up the divide of opinions succinctly:
"Villain to you, a hero to me ;)"
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