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Courtroom ban on cellphone and other electronics takes effect Monday

People their cellphones for story World Health Organizatistudy linking cellphones cancer  Tuesday  May 31 2011. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

People on their cellphones for story on World Health Organization study linking cellphones and cancer Tuesday, May 31, 2011. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 14, 2013 6:48AM

From their perch behind the bench, judges at the Leighton Criminal Court building — described as one of the busiest in the country — have been warning the public about the looming ban on cellphones and other electronic devices.

Fliers and posters also convey the same message about the ban, which kicks in Monday: Power down people and leave those cellphones and tablets at home.

Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans announced in a prepared statement last month that he was instituting the ban at the 13 court facilities where criminal cases are heard because of concerns about witness intimidation.

But the move touched a nerve with sheriff’s deputies in charge of court security as well as some court workers perplexed over how the rule could be enforced given the significant indigent population that arrives at the main courthouse at 26th and California via public transportation.

“Many people come here on the CTA. What are they going to do, throw their iPhones in the bushes? It’s a complete disservice to the people who come to this courthouse . . . and [gives them] just another reason to hate the system,” assistant public defender Julie Koehler said.

Evans, apparently responding to such concerns, presented a revised order Friday that included a three-month grace period and expands those exempted from the ban to include domestic violence victims, the disabled and those with an order of protection.

During the 90-day grace period, those who bring their cellphones to the building but have nowhere to store them can carry them into courtrooms as long as they are turned off.

The time period will allow officials to “quickly find a solution” on where to keep the cellphones, Evans said in a statement Friday.

Denice Wolf Markham, executive director of Life Span , an advocacy group for sexual and domestic violence victims, said she was “grateful” and “relieved” Evans took her letter detailing her worries seriously and tweaked the order to protect the battered.

“He did the right thing. He listened to the advocates and changed his mind,” she said.

Meanwhile, a few sheriff’s deputies, who largely support the cellphone ban, smirked when told about the last minute revision Friday and joked that Evans seemed to be “backing down.”

But even those in favor of the edict thought the county’s top judge probably jumped the gun without giving much thought to how the plan would work.

“They keep comparing it to federal court where they end early and the suburbs where most people drive and can put their phones back in their car,” a sheriff’s deputy told the Sun-Times. “What if a mother is stuck late in court and needs to call someone to pick up her child after school?”

There are pay storage machines where visitors can stow, at a price tag of $3, smaller items: cameras, phones and even sharp objects, such as pocket knives, not allowed in the courthouse. However, some say the machines don’t work “half the time.”

Evans explained in his written statement in December that he pushed ahead with the prohibition after judges voiced concern “that people attending court proceedings were using their cellphones to photograph witnesses, judges, jurors, and prospective jurors. They also said persons appeared to be texting testimony to witnesses waiting their turn to testify outside the courtroom, while others were attempting to stream live to media comments by judges from the bench.”

Many sheriff’s deputies said that they, too, have seen people covertly take pictures on their mobiles and text potential witnesses about what was said in court prior to their testimony. One deputy said he saw court testimony in a YouTube clip.

The ban will be in place at 13 court facilities where criminal cases are heard; violators could be slapped with a contempt of court charge.

The Richard J. Daley court complex in downtown Chicago, where civil proceedings are largely heard, is exempt from an all-out ban, though the use of electronic devices will be restricted to public areas away from courtrooms.

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