No Call Zone-- Court issues ban on cell phone use

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

An occasional nuisance in court. Many times a distraction. And we're not talking about attorneys.

No, the items in question are cell phones. And lately, because of all the multi-media tasks available in this high-tech world, the cell phone, with all its capabilities, have become a security issue.

And beginning May 17, cell phones will be banned from all Flint city and Genesee County court facilities. That means that any member of the public will not be allowed to bring their personal device into any court in the county.

"This is something that has been evolving among court officials," said Genesee County 67th District Court Judge Mark McCabe.

As executive chief judge of the Genesee County Judicial Council, McCabe said he and other members of the council have been talking about the ban for the last year or so.

"It's been bandied about on and off for a few years now, and we decided this would be a good time to act on it," he said.

The Judicial Council is comprised of chief and pro tem judges from both the 67th and 68th district courts, and the Genesee County Circuit, Probate and Family Courts. Members also include the administrators of those courts, Genesee County sheriff and prosecutor, as well as the Genesee County Bar Association.

When cell phones first came out, the main function was just making and receiving calls. And if judges had a nickel for every time one would ring, buzz, chime or play a downloaded ring tone song in court, they'd have a lot of nickels.

Those court distractions mainly occurred when a member of the public would forget to turn their device off upon entering a court, despite signs posted in numerous places in the courthouse and on courtroom entrance doors. Attorneys, prosecutors, and others conducting court business also were guilty of forgetting to turn off their cell phones on occasion. Even members of the media were sometimes embarrassed when their cell phones caused the annoyance.

"When cell phones were just 'cell phones,' it was an issue of court decorum when they went off," McCabe said.

Depending on the judge, the penalties would range from a stern warning from the bench, another "gentle reminder" to shut the phone off, a confiscation of the mobile phone and even paying a fine to get it back.

"But as the technology of cell phones has developed, so to have more and more security issues evolved," McCabe said.

Now, many, if not most, devices can take pictures and videos, send text, Twitter and e-mail messages, connect to the Internet, and a multitude of other applications. And that is where the real problems start, McCabe said.

"You can do a lot of things on cell phones you could not do in the past," he said.

McCabe said the judges have seen so many of those things being done in court, they decided it was time to address the topic at the Judicial Council meeting.

A local administrative order was already in place banning obvious items from all court rooms, such as firearms, explosives, knives, box cutters, razor blades, fingernail files, scissors, knitting needles, tools such as hammers, nails and screwdrivers, and chemical sprays.

McCabe said officials have been discussing the wording of the ban and finalizing the order in recent months.

"We wanted to establish a uniform policy that added cell phones to the list of banned items," McCabe said.

Officials presented the new order to the Michigan Supreme Court, which recently approved the local administrative order.

Attorneys, police officers, properly identified jurors and other government employees are excluded from the ban while in court facilities, or while in those places on work-related business. Media personnel may be allowed to take recording devices into courts with written permission by the judge.

The public is required to pass through a screening device before entering court any court facility, manned by the Genesee County Sheriff's Department deputies. Signs will be posted there alerting the public of the new policy, and deputies will not be able to hold the cell phone for the person. Likewise, no lockers or holding areas will be available. People found with the devices will be told to leave and place the items in their vehicle, or elsewhere.

McCabe said the main reason for the ban is for courtroom security of witnesses, jurors and certain proceedings where a sequestration order has been instituted. "We don't want any disruption or improper communications to people outside the courtroom."

He said attorneys have been notified of the upcoming ban, and have been asked to inform their clients of it in advance to avoid any problems.

"This is simply to ensure that court decorum and safety is preserved and protected," McCabe said. "And to promote security within the judicial system."

Other courts in Michigan have had similar cell phone bans for some time, including Wayne, Oakland and Berrien counties.

"I believe it's fair to say that well over 100 courts in Michigan have cell phone bans of one sort or another," McCabe said.

Genesee County 68th District Court Chief Judge Archie Hayman applauds the ban. He said he has witnessed breaches of security using a cell phone within his own court, where testimony is disseminated outside the court or witnesses have been photographed. He said that could lead to troubles on the outside.

Genesee Sheriff Robert Pickell said his deputies have seen information sent to the outside during trials of gang members as a way to intimidate witness, police informants or private citizens.

"Because of that, this ban has been forced on us, but some people have become bolder and bolder in what they do and how far they will take things," he said.

Chief Probate Judge Jennie Barkey said she also approves of the ban, but wanted to apologize in advance to the public for any inconveniences the ban causes.

"This is another example of how good, well-intentioned people have to pay the price for the few evil people in the world," she said. "So we're going to police the ban, and enforce it.

"But I think we have to do this," she said. "If the Sheriff and others say we need it, then we need it."

McCabe said he believes the majority of people do not intend to do anything wrong with their cell phones, but have become so used to taking the device where ever they go, simply forget they have it.

"Eventually, the public will learn to accept it, or at least tolerate it," he said. "There's more good than bad to this."

Published: Thu, May 6, 2010