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[January 21, 2013]
EDITORIAL: Use it, lose it
Jan 21, 2013 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Good morning and welcome to the seventh grade. The use of cellphones is not allowed in the classroom. Not for texting, not for talking, not for looking up answers to your assignments. Power down or put it on vibrate, and keep it in your backpack. If I see or hear it, it's mine.
With due respect to Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans, those middle school teachers are on to something. Before you enforce a ban on cellphones in the county's criminal courts buildings, why not try something less draconian Just threaten to take them away.
Evans got a lot of blowback last month when he announced a new policy prohibiting devices that can connect to the Internet or make audio or video recordings. That means virtually all modern cellphones, tablets and laptop computers.
The chief judge says courtroom observers have used their smartphones to snap pictures and make recordings. Some have texted witnesses who were waiting to testify, or have attempted to live stream proceedings from the courtroom. He worries that gang members are using their electronics to intimidate witnesses, jurors and judges.
Most people, though, are using their phones for more mundane purposes: Touching base with the office, keeping tabs on their kids, alerting their spouses to start dinner because court is running late. Yes, even those innocent activities can cause a disturbance in the courtroom. That won't happen if people are instructed to stow their phones. Once the law-abiding court visitors have stashed their devices, it should be easy to spot the gangbangers texting testimony to their allies on the outside.
Evans' order doesn't apply to current and former judges, attorneys, police officers, government employees, reporters, vendors and jurors. Responding to concerns from advocates, the judge also exempted domestic violence victims, the disabled and people who are under an order of protection. That's a long list.
Imagine the confusion at the security checkpoints as sheriff's deputies try to sort out who's allowed to enter the courthouse with a cellphone and who isn't. Imagine being stuck in line while those arguments play out endlessly and you miss your court time.
What happens if you're not among those exempted and you happen to have a phone on your person The average citizen doesn't frequent the criminal courthouse, after all, and might not know about the ban.
Maybe you can leave the line and stow the phone in your car, though chances are you'll pass a sign warning you not to leave valuables in your vehicle. But many courthouse patrons arrive by public transportation. What are they supposed to do Storage lockers are available, but they cost $3, they're often broken and they aren't big enough to accommodate some of the banned items.
And no, leaving cellphones at home is not a realistic or reasonable option. Once outside the courtroom, people need their phones to conduct their everyday business.
In a letter to the Tribune this week, Evans defended his order, saying it is designed to keep the courthouses safe and protect the integrity of the judicial system. But he has provided only anecdotal information to justify the ban, and many courthouse regulars are scratching their heads. This solution feels like a bigger headache than the problem it's meant to address.
To his credit, Evans has announced a three-month "grace period" to allow people to adjust to the new rules and give courthouse personnel a chance to figure out how to implement them.
Here's our suggestion: Post the rules. Confiscate phones from people who break them. Put people on notice that their electronics should be stowed and silenced, and if courthouse personnel see or hear a phone they'll take it away. You use it, you lose it. It works in junior high school. It can work in court, too.
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