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Courthouse phone bans uncommon

The other day, I went to the courthouse in Sterling and accidentally brought in my cellphone.

A security guard told me I couldn't take it in. I'm used to following that rule at the county courthouses in Dixon and Morrison, but I forgot it applied to the smaller courthouse in Sterling as well.

As with most such policies, exceptions are made. Attorneys and courthouse employees can bring phones in.

Lee County Sheriff John Varga, who is in charge of the Lee County Courthouse in Dixon, said cellphones are banned because they are a disturbance in court. Also, the county doesn't want people using their phones to record private conversations outside courtrooms between attorneys and their clients, the sheriff said.

Nationwide, these phone bans are apparently rare.

I called random courthouses in Kentucky, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado, California and Alabama – both in small towns and big cities alike – and they all had the same rule for cellphones: People can bring them into courthouses, but they need to turn them off once they're inside courtrooms. After all, no one wants a phone disturbing proceedings.

Recently, Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans announced he was banning phones and other electronic devices, including laptops, in courthouses, but after an outcry, he gave a 3-month grace period.

Why did the judge enact the rule? He feared gang members would leak testimony to upcoming witnesses outside the courtroom, compromising cases.

In Chicago, many use mass transit, so they can't just leave their phones in their cars. According to the Chicago Tribune, Cook County's courthouses have storage lockers, but they cost $3, they're often broken, and they're not big enough for some of the banned items.

In Cook County, the chief judge exempted many people from the ban – current and former judges, attorneys, officers, government employees, reporters, vendors, jurors, domestic violence victims, the disabled and people who are under orders of protection.

Boy, with such broad exceptions, the policy will be a nightmare to enforce.

The Tribune has come out against the ban. Instead, it urges the court to require people to stow away their electronic devices in courtrooms.

The newspaper argued, "Once outside the courtroom, people need their phones to conduct their everyday business."

For now, I'll make a mental note: Don't bring my phone into courthouses.

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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