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Judge bars cellphones, electronics from Cook County criminal courts

In an announcement that caught some Cook County government officials by surprise, the county’s top judge announced Tuesday that the general public will be barred from bringing cellphones, tablet computers and other electronics into criminal courthouses, citing increasing concern that gang members are using the technology to influence courtroom proceedings.

Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans said devices “capable of connecting to the Internet or making audio or video recordings” would be banned beginning Jan. 14 at all 13 criminal court facilities in the county. The Daley Center in downtown Chicago was excluded because mostly civil matters are handled there.

The policy change, announced in a news release, was made without the input of the Cook County sheriff’s office, which is responsible for day-to-day security at the courthouses, said sheriff’s spokesman Frank Bilecki.

Bilecki said the rule could lead to a host of practical issues, from a shortage of kiosks currently in place in courthouse lobbies for cellphone storage to how to deal with people trying to get to non-court-related facilities such as social service centers at the courthouse locations.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions that would have to be worked out very quickly if this is going to happen,” Bilecki said.

The judge was not available for comment Tuesday afternoon, but Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle also was not consulted before the change was announced, said spokeswoman Kristen Mack. She declined further comment.

In his release, Evans said the move was prompted after criminal judges complained that people attending court proceedings were using cellphones to photograph witnesses, judges and jurors. Some judges also said spectators “appeared to be texting testimony to witnesses waiting their turn to testify outside the courtroom,” he said, without offering any specific examples.

“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,” Evans said.

Anyone violating the ban could face prosecution for contempt of court, Evans said.

Current and former judges, licensed attorneys, law enforcement officers, government employees, members of the public reporting for jury service and news reporters won’t be subject to the ban, Evans said.

The crackdown comes as Cook County nears allowing cameras in courtrooms on an experimental basis — a plan that has been enthusiastically supported by Evans.

The blanket ban on electronics is a change that some foresee causing a lot of confusion and delays. For example, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building at 26th Street and California Avenue — one of the busiest criminal courthouses in the country — the line to get through security in the morning already can stretch around the lobby and out the front doors.

Bilecki said sheriff’s deputies who scan people through metal detectors will now have the job of telling those with phones to return them to their vehicles. Hundreds of Cook County residents take public transportation to courthouses every day, leaving them few places to store cellphones once they get there, he said.

Some of the court facilities have kiosks at the entrance where visitors can pay $3 to store valuables such as a wallet, phone or keys. But the machines break down often — on Tuesday, one of the two at the 26th and California courthouse had an “out of order” sign taped to it — and the compartments are too small to hold larger electronics such as laptops or tablet computers.

Bilecki said sheriff’s deputies will be the ones who have to face the ire of those they turn away.

“What happens if a kiosk breaks down and there are 400 phones in there?” Bilecki said.

– Via Chicago Tribune

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