Absurdity of Courthouse Cellphone Ban Reaches New Heights

In recent weeks, the ban on possession of cellphones in a single courthouse for the Circuit Court of Cook County has gained an unprecedented amount of media attention with stories on NPR, in the Chicago Tribune and throughout local TV news. The attention resulted from a public push and pull to remove—and then quickly reinstall—lockers at the Leighton Criminal Courts building located in Chicago. Cook County now finds itself in the absurd position of having amongst the highest ranking administrators in the Adult Probation Department manning cell phone lockers which have not been shown to be necessary any other courthouse in the circuit or in many large urban courthouses throughout the country.

The cellphone ban prohibits all non-attorneys from bringing any cell phone, smart phone, tablet or laptop computer into the courthouse. The ban was established in 2013 by the Office of the Chief Judge, who cited security concerns over individuals recording and taking pictures of witnesses, victims, defendants, and/or court staff during proceedings. At present, the ban is enforced only at the courthouse at 26th and California where the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County processes felony cases arising in Chicago. Such a ban is not in place in several other large urban court systems throughout the country.

The Leighton Criminal Division Building is located at 2600 South California and is difficult to access by public transit from many areas of Chicago. Despite that, 90% of the people who arrive at 26th & California on any given day take buses and/or trains to get there. With the cell phone ban in place, these public transit users have no car in which to leave their phone or other electronics when they go inside the courthouse.

It is obvious to all readers, no doubt, the central role that cell phones and laptops play in modern life. Being unable to bring a phone or laptop that is needed for post-court work or family obligations easily turns the already inconvenient trip to 26th and California into a full half-day or more of travel. Witnesses, defendants, supporters, and victims have struggled to contact attorneys or get necessary information about which courtroom they need to be in without access to their cell phones. After court, they find themselves stranded by the combination of poor transit access and having no phone with which to coordinate a ride home or to work.

In order to deal with the need for cell phone storage, in 2013 the Circuit Court of Cook County installed a small number of free lockers for use at the courthouse. These small lockers fit only cell phones, and are limited in number. Many people attending court have been known to resort to hiding their cellphones outside under bushes or paying the food truck operator outside to store their phones for them when the lockers were full. Worse still, others have missed court dates, unable or unwilling to abandon their phone or laptop outside the building.

One year ago, the vendor who had managed the courthouse lockers abruptly left. The facilities management department informed the Office of the Chief Judge (OCJ), that it would staff the lockers, but only temporarily until another solution was found. A year passed with no progress in identifying a new vendor to operate the lockers. In the interim, facilities staff reported instances of people putting contraband (drugs and weapons) in the lockers.

Facilities management staff are not trained in security or law enforcement, and both Cook County Homeland Security and the Sheriff’s Office have expressed concerns about having lockers inside of courthouses. This concern has only grown in recent months due to events elsewhere in the world.

On February 19, 2016, facilities management informed the OCJ of their intent to remove the lockers on March 7, 2016. Ultimately, the lockers were not removed until April 1, 2016. Yet between February 19th and April 1st, no replacement vendor was found. So, on April 1st, lockers for cell phones were temporarily no longer available for use by all the people traveling to 26th and California without a bar license or a car.

After public outcry, the lockers were reinstalled—this time after security. Instead of arranging for a permanent, outside vendor, the Office of the Chief arranged for high-ranking individuals in the adult probation department to staff the lockers as a result of their non-union status. As a result, individuals such as the Deputy Director of Cook County Adult Probation, who has a myriad of important supervisory and administrative duties, is spending his/her days staffing the cellphone lockers.

What is the solution to this problem? The cellphone ban itself may have to be revisited. Currently it is incredibly easy to circumvent (one need only wear business attire and look like they are at the courthouse in the professional capacity to walk through the metal detectors with a cellphone and laptop in tow), the lockers have created their own security concerns while creating the hardships mentioned above, and other courthouses manage without such a ban by simply having courtroom deputees police cellphone use and disruption within each room. There is no reason presented by the Office of the Chief Judge that the Sherriff’s deputees, whose job description includes maintaining the proper courtroom environment and safety are not capable of this.