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Editorial: Chaos in the courthouse, with no place to stash smartphones

Wednesday, April 06, 2016
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

If you're a regular visitor to the Leighton Criminal Court Building, you probably knew better than to bring your cellphone with you this week.

You would have known that cameras and recording devices aren't allowed in Cook County courtrooms, that Chief Judge Tim Evans had decreed three years ago that the ban included smartphones — and that starting this week, there would be no lockers in the lobby in which to store those gadgets before going through security.

But if — like most people — you have few occasions to appear in a criminal courtroom, you were in for a troublesome surprise. In order to make that court date, you had to leave your phone on the other side of the checkpoint. But where?

Hundreds of people have been faced with that dilemma this week. Many weren't lucky enough to have a car parked outside or a friend nearby. So they stashed their phones in concrete planters outside the courthouse. They entrusted them to strangers they met in the lobby. They paid the driver of a food truck parked outside the building $2 to hold their phones for a few hours.

 

Or they threw themselves on the mercy of sheriff's office employees who'd anticipated this needless chaos and tried to avert it.

The smartphone ban doesn't apply to everyone. Judges, jurors, police officers, employees, attorneys and journalists are allowed to bring their phones in. Those are the very people who frequent the courthouse, the ones who would have seen the signs announcing that the lockers would be gone after April 1.

Those affected by the ban include criminal defendants, their families and supporters, witnesses, crime victims and courtroom spectators. When Evans announced the ban in 2013, he cited reports of people snapping photos of judges or jurors, making recordings of testimony or texting from the courtroom — distracting behaviors at best but also potential intimidation tactics.

Vending machines for storage were installed in the lobby; they were later replaced by lockers. But the Department of Facilities Management — which answers to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, not to Evans or Sheriff Tom Dart — complained that people were using them to stash drugs, weapons and other contraband. So the lockers are gone, but the smartphone ban remains.

And confusion reigns in the courthouse lobby. Rather than surrendering their phones, some people have chosen to leave instead. But not everyone has that option. Defendants or witnesses risk arrest or contempt of court charges if they don't show up.

This week, a small army of sheriff's staffers, all with other important jobs to do, have been dispatched to manage the mess, acting as liaisons with courtroom personnel.

Some people eventually were allowed to take their phones past the checkpoints after judges granted an exception. Some left their phones in the custody of the sheriff's employees. Others were allowed to reschedule their court dates, or to waive their right to appear.

Still, appearances were missed, trials were postponed, warrants were issued. That's a huge waste of court resources. It's also a needless inconvenience for those who made the trek to court — many of them on public transportation, with kids in tow — only to turn around and go home.

Each day, a different crowd of unsuspecting citizens faced the same quandary.

How, exactly, is this supposed to get better?

Evans has no plans to lift or modify the ban. It was put in place after judges reported that courtroom observers had used their phones to text witnesses who were waiting to testify, to photograph potential jurors or to live-stream proceedings from the courtroom. Evans said he worried that gang members were using their electronics to intimidate witnesses, jurors and judges. That hasn't happened in the three years that smartphones have been banned.

Were those threats ever significant? The sheriff's office, which is responsible for courthouse security, doesn't think so. We remain unconvinced, too. The few incidents reported don't justify such a draconian ban. A judge's warning, backed up by swift confiscation of violators' phones, ought to suffice. Zero tolerance is a powerful deterrent — and it punishes only the guilty.

But we'll note that the pandemonium in the courthouse lobby this week was created not by the 3-year-old ban but by the abrupt removal of the lockers that were put there in response. Like so many issues that test the collaborative capacity of the Evans-Preckwinkle-Dart triangle, this one was handled badly. And the public paid the price.

Copyright © 2016,Chicago Tribune


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