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Cellphone ban starts at Leighton Criminal courthouse

Cook County Criminal Courthouse where today new court order no electronic devices permitted Courthouse Monday April 15 2013.  |

Cook County Criminal Courthouse where today on new court order, no electronic devices permitted in Courthouse, Monday, April 15, 2013. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 17, 2013 6:18AM

Blanche Johnson paused on the steps of the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building when she heard the deputy’s warning Monday morning: no cellphones.

She said it was the first she had heard of the county’s new ban on electronic devices, fully enforced for the first time this week at the building at 26th and California — one of the busiest courthouses in the country.

“I’ve got to go to work from here,” Johnson said, standing outside the courthouse on a windy day. “I’m just going to traffic court. This is crazy.”

But having nowhere to stash her phone — she’d just gotten off the bus — the South Sider decided to stuff it into one of the storage lockers set up in the courthouse lobby.

Johnson put the phone in a plastic bag. And she fumbled, phone in one hand and purse in the other, to open the sliding locker door. TV cameras peered over her shoulder as she struggled.

“This don’t make no sense,” Johnson said. “I’m already late for court.”

Fed up, she finally pushed a “help” button on the machine and, with the help of a voice crackling over a tiny speaker, she managed to slip her phone securely inside.

When it was over, Johnson grumbled, “B--- s---.”

County authorities said last week they expected “a number of upset people” when the electronics ban went into full effect Monday.

It nearly went into full effect in January. But Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans, apparently responding to concerns about people like Johnson arriving at the courthouse via public transportation, announced a three-month grace period.

Now that it’s over, most people seem to have gotten the message. No one walked away from the Leighton Criminal Court Building’s lobby when a deputy walked through the line early Monday morning to remind people about the ban.

Other deputies stationed themselves outside the courthouse to warn people as they walked up the courthouse steps. Only a few turned away.

One man stopped the car that had just dropped him off as it was about to pull away, and he quickly tossed his cellphone into its window. Another man, who made it to the lobby with his cellphone, just shrugged at a reporter as he was directed toward the storage lockers.

After putting his phone in a locker, French Cribbs of Englewood said he sees the advantages and disadvantages of the ban.

The ban is expected to be phased in at the remaining Cook County courthouses — except for the Richard J. Daley Center — in the coming months.

Certain people are exempted from the ban, including current or former judges, licensed attorneys, news media, government employees, anyone reporting for jury duty and people with disabilities who require electronic devices to communicate.

Evans has cited not only the ringing of phones during testimony but the use of devices to text testimony to other witnesses as a justification for the ban.

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