Kadner: County court ban a potential bust
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org January 14, 2013 8:50PM
The Cook County criminal courts in Chicago. | File photo
Updated: February 16, 2013 6:20AM
It must have sounded like a good idea at first to Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans.
All cellphones and other electronic communication devices were supposed to be banned from the county’s criminal court buildings as of Monday.
But Evans has decided to delay the effective date of his order for three months.
Evans previously had said he was concerned about people in courtrooms text-messaging witnesses about testimony that had taken place before they testified. He also was worried that gang members were using the devices to intimidate witnesses during trials.
“We want to do everything we can to ensure that justice is properly done by preserving the integrity of testimony and maintaining court decorum,” Evans said in a statement about the ban. “We understand this may be an inconvenience to some, but our primary goal is to protect those inside our courthouses and perhaps save lives in the process.”
Worthy goals to be sure. But I have to wonder when Evans last had to wait in line to get into a Cook County courthouse or was forced to pass through a security checkpoint with the masses.
And just how were Cook County sheriff’s deputies, responsible for security at the courthouses, going to enforce Evans’ order?
Thousands of people visit the criminal court buildings in Cook County each day. It is said to be the largest unified criminal justice system in the country. In one week alone, as many as 20,000 cases can be on call, according to the clerk of the circuit court.
People waiting in line to enter a criminal court building are forced to put anything that might contain metal in a tray before passing through a scanner. That often includes keys, belts, loose change, wristwatches, etc.
If someone forgets an item, which happens often, an alarm goes off and the entire entrance line comes to a halt.
Just about everyone carries a cellphone these days. Many people have iPhones or computers that they carry around with them for work.
What were Cook County courthouse officials going to do with all that stuff if people forgot about the ban or were unaware of it? They said the public would be instructed to return to their cars, store their electronic devices and return to the courthouse.
Now you have thousands of people who are trying to make court hearings scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Most of those folks don’t arrive early anticipating a hassle.
So they’re nervous, they’ve waited their turn in a long line, gotten to the scanners and now they’re going to be told to return to their cars.
I would bet a few people are going to be very angry. Some are going to shout. Some might even cause a disturbance. And that’s going to delay things for everyone else even more.
As for going back to the car, that might not be a big problem at the suburban courthouses, but at the main criminal courts building in Chicago, 26th Street and California Avenue, public parking is at a premium. It can be a very long walk back to the car.
Many people in Chicago take public transportation to courthouses.
Evans initially suggested that his plan was to create some sort of bin system for cellphones to be stored in and tagged for identification in the courthouses.
I don’t know how much time that tagging would take, but I do have reservations about how well the process would work.
Many years ago, while entering a courthouse, a Cook County sheriff’s employee confiscated a pocket knife from me. It was a really small one and very old, with the image of a 1950s TV cowboy on it.
My wife had given it to me as a gift. Anyway, the Cook County sheriff’s official assured me it would be there when I was ready to leave and placed a tag on it bearing my name. She put the tag in a container and put the container underneath a counter.
As I was leaving a couple of hours later, the person who had taken the knife was gone. The people at the counter said they knew nothing about the knife and could not find it.
I sure hope some county employee’s kid enjoyed that knife.
Cellphones, of course, are much more important to people than pocket knives. They have a lot of personal information stored inside them. And they can be worth a lot of money.
I think the Cook County sheriff’s deputies have their hands full already maintaining discipline in the courthouses and trying to get the public through those scanners in an orderly fashion.
I don’t think they need the hassle of confiscating cellphones and other electronic devices and dealing with all the angry folks who aren’t going to be very happy when told they have to leave the building or give them up.
And then there’s the process of handing out some sort of redemption ticket to those whose cellphones are confiscated. What happens if the phone isn’t there when a person comes back? Or if someone claims a mysterious 30-minute call was placed on their phone to some exotic place while they were in the courthouse?
I understand Evans’ desire to protect the security of witnesses and the integrity of the judicial process.
But no matter how many news stories there are about this, no matter how often judges and sheriff’s deputies remind people that this ban is going into effect, there are going to be a lot of people who don’t get the message.
Many people will never hear the warning because they simply don’t use courthouses on a regular basis.
And human nature being what it is, people are going to forget because cellphones are just part of their everyday stuff, like a wallet.
Maybe I’m wrong. Then again, I’ve seen how many women toss their cans of pepper spray into the bushes outside of courthouses in Cook County on their way in.