Cell phones evolve from courthouse nuisance to safety risk

Issue May 2007

Cell phones in the courthouse have graduated from a potential etiquette faux pas to a security concern, leading some judges to ban the devices. At issue is the growing number of cellular phones equipped with cameras, which some
judges say can be used to intimidate jurors or witnesses or identify undercover police officers.

Strict limits were placed on cell phones in January at the Dorchester division of Boston Municipal Court after First Justice Sydney Hanlon became concerned about the often undetectable camera phones. Last year a man was convicted of witness
intimidation for taking pictures of an undercover police officer in the Dorchester courthouse.

Hanlon said there was recent concern that it had happened again. “I didn’t ban them until it was a security concern,” said Hanlon.

However, she explains that cell phones have long been a distraction in the courtroom.

The cell phone ban, which went into effect Jan. 2, applies to defendants, witnesses or other members of the public entering the courthouse for either municipal or juvenile cases. Hanlon issued the policy in December to give people time to get acquainted with the new rules. The court has tried to make the public aware of the new rule by stamping it onto papers sent out by the clerk’s office.

Hanlon’s policy goes a step beyond an anti-intimidation policy issued by Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert Mulligan last year. Mulligan’s policy, which generated considerable talk because of its ban on “Stop Snitching” T-shirts, ordered that cell phones be turned off inside courthouses and that those phones equipped with cameras or video cameras not be used inside the buildings.

The policy excludes lawyers, jurors, courthouse staff, the media and police on official business.

However, those groups are still expected to keep cell phones turned off in court or risk them being confiscated.

Hanlon said she and other court officials discussed possibly differentiating between camera-equipped phones and other phones, but that idea was quickly jettisoned. It would be too difficult for court security officers to examine every cell phone entering the building, especially given the number of weapons, including a machete, that people have tried to smuggle in, Hanlon said.

“We have between 1,000 and 1,200 people come through that door every day,” Hanlon said. Everyone coming in has at least one cell phone, she said. “The thing that made sense was to ban them entirely.”

Local attorneys said the ban is inconvenient, but makes sense. They said similar bans have been implemented in federal courts and other municipal courts around the commonwealth.

“It’s unfortunate it’s necessary, but I’m not sure what the alternative is, given that cell phones are so much more than a phone these days,” said Kathy Jo Cook, an associate with Keches & Mallen PC in Taunton and chair of the MBA’s Judicial Administration Section Council. For clients “it’s probably not the end of the world, but there is some inconvenience to it.”

Peter T. Elikann, a criminal defense attorney in Boston, said judges have become very concerned about witness intimidation. Elikann pointed to an incident about a year ago when a witness’s grand jury testimony was printed out and posted throughout the neighborhood. Jurors also have been subjected to intimidation, he said.

“I don’t think it’s widespread, but it’s serious enough that when it does happen, it is a genuine area of concern,” he said. “As inconvenient as it is, there is a certain compelling logic in making sure people are not intimidated or endangered inside a courthouse.”

The issue of cell phones in the courtroom is one many states are grappling with, but few have policies so far, said Peggy Rogers, a knowledge and information services specialist for the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va. She said many courts are looking at it as a security issue.

In Delaware, signs are posted on the courthouse doors informing the public that cell phones are not allowed inside. Colorado also forbids cell phones in its courthouses.

But Rogers said those states are the exception. In most parts of the country, whether to allow cell phones inside a courthouse is up to the judges’ discretion. So far the ban has ruffled few feathers in Dorchester.

“Frankly, there has been surprisingly little trouble,” Hanlon said.

The ban has had the added benefit of cutting down on the number of people coming to court to support  their friends or family. “The corridors are much quieter,” she said.