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Courthouse Cell Phone Ban Turns Some Visitors Into Entrepreneurs

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CHICAGO (CBS) — County officials began enforcing a ban on cell phones and other electronic devices at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Monday, a move that sparked anger, ingenuity and an entrepreneurial spirit among those at the courthouse.

WBBM Newsradio’s Bernie Tafoya reports the ban started Monday morning, barring most people from bringing cell phones, laptops, tablet computers, and other Internet-capable electronics into the criminal courthouse at 26th and California.

Courthouse deputies have been warning visitors of the looming ban for weeks, but many still showed up Monday with their cell phones in hand, unaware they wouldn’t be able to take their phones with them into court.

Miguel Sosa stood across from the courthouse with some plastic bags and a blue plastic bin, running a new business he called “Hold ‘Em Up Lock ‘N Box.”

“They leave their valuables here. I’m not going anywhere, so it’s a cure,” he said. “I’m safe, and they’re safe.”

With between 5,000 and 6,000 people visiting the courthouse every day, but only 180 storage lockers for those who take public transportation – and therefore can’t leave their cell phone in their car outside – lots of people were left trying to find another way to keep their cell phone safe while they went inside.

Even though his only security measure for the cell phones he holds is a plastic bin, Sosa said his business is “very safe.”

He was charging $2 per person to hold their cell phones while they’re in court. The lockers inside cost $3.

Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans said the cell phone ban was imposed for everyone’s safety.

“We’ve had people boldly attempt to take photographs of prospective jurors, people who are going to be witnesses in a case,” he said.

Last week, Evans said 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.”

One woman was angry when she was told she couldn’t take her cell phone with her to court Monday morning.

“What if my baby at school, what if she’s trying to call me. What if it’s an emergency?” she said. “I left it in the car, but what good is that?”

One man, who called himself Mr. Carter, didn’t want to pay for a locker, or for someone like Sosa to keep his cell phone safe while he was at the courthouse, so he resorted to stashing it nearby in the neighborhood. He took the bus to court, so he couldn’t put it in his car like people who drove there. He said he tried to get the phone past security first.

“I tried to pull a little slick one, but it’s okay. I know now that just they’re real strict about it. I won’t bring it,” he 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.

The ban will be expanded to all other Cook County courthouses — except for the Richard J. Daley Center — in the coming months.

Evans has said it makes more sense to begin enforcement of the ban at the Leighton Criminal Court Building at 26th and California because the potential for security breaches there is highest.

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.