CHICAGO (CBS) — Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans on Friday defended the decision to begin implementing a ban on cell phones and other electronic communication at courthouses, saying he’s concerned about witnesses being intimidated, or worse.
Evans told CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine he believes the ability of courthouse visitors to use cell phones to take pictures and record testimony of witnesses in court has led to the murder of witnesses.
“Absolutely,” Evans said. “No question in my mind; and we have to stop it before it gets worse.”
The move makes Chicago the first major metropolitan area to ban cell phones at courthouses.
The ban starts Monday at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, where phones have previously been permitted, though using them to take pictures or record testimony in court has always been forbidden.
Zach Pecho, who was at the Leighton courthouse on Friday, said, “I think we’re adults, and we can follow the rules if they just had rules, but I don’t think you should just have to not be able to have your phone on you.”
But starting Monday, anyone who brings a cell phone, laptop, tablet computer, or other Internet-capable electronic device to the courthouse, and can’t leave it outside in a car or with a friend, will have to use special storage units in the lobby of the courthouse.
The problem is there aren’t enough of them, which could lead to big problems until people get used to new regulations that people grudgingly admit they brought on themselves.
“They come in with the cell phone, and they tell you what not to do, and they’ll do it,” Chicago resident Ericka Hill said.
Evans first announced the ban in December, citing complaints from judges about people using phones to photograph witnesses, judges, jurors, and attorneys; and about others texting testimony to other witnesses outside the courtroom.
The ban initially was supposed to go into effect in January, but Evans imposed a three-month grace period. During that time, courthouse deputies have been informing courthouse visitors about the looming ban.
“You might think, ‘Well, why doesn’t the sheriff stop this?’ Well, that’s a legitimate question. We asked the same thing of the sheriff’s office, why don’t you stop this? They say they can’t,” Evans said.
But the judge stopped short of blaming the sheriff’s office for the problem.
“I’m not playing the blame game here. I’m trying to prevent what could be a tragedy, and I’m trying to do it for justice’s sake,” Evans said.
A spokesman for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart claimed the chief judge never called to ask if courtroom deputies could enforce the rules about cell phone use inside courtrooms.
“We found out about this in the media,” the spokesman said, adding “we maintain a safe, secure environment (in courtrooms) every single day.”
Dart and Evans have a history of battles over issues such as responsibility for jail overcrowding, and decisions about home monitoring for some criminal defendants. The only talks they’ve had about the cell phone ban, Dart’s spokesman said, came over how to implement a policy Evans had already announced.
The ban won’t stop at the Leighton courthouse. Every other Cook County courthouse, with the exception of the Daley Center downtown, eventually will impose the ban.
Exempt from the ban are lawyers, judges, reporters, law enforcement officers, many government workers, jurors, building maintenance workers, domestic violence advocates and counselors, those seeking an order of protection or involved in the domestic violence assistance program, anyone required to wear an electronic monitoring device, and people with disabilities who need electronic devices to communicate.
CBS 2 Political Producer Ed Marshall contributed to this report.