Cellphone Ban Could Change in Virginia Courthouses

Daily reliance on the technology was cited as one of the reasons for a state Supreme Court “model policy” for allowing mobile devices into the buildings.

by Bill Atkinson, The Progress-Index / December 18, 2018
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(TNS) — The long-standing prohibition on taking cellphones into area courthouses possibly could be lifted soon, as the state Supreme Court has issued a "model policy" for allowing mobile devices into these buildings.

The policy released by the state high court last week is not binding. Instead, it is only a blueprint for local judges and court officials to follow in creating their own standards on either permitting or restricting cellphones, laptops and other devices. It points to the daily reliance people have on their mobile devices to do business, sometimes with the court, but at the same time acknowledges the safety threat they could impose.

"Appropriate use at the courthouse will allow people to access information for presentation to the court, and it will aloow people to transact other necessary business," the policy states. "Inappropriate use can be a danger, cause distractions and demean the oeser and processes of the court."

The policy's purpose, it states, is to set a standard "that respects the interests and needs of the people" in the courthouses. It cites an example where a defendant in a proceeding is acting as their own attorney may be prevented "from effectively presenting evidence in their cases, successfully accessing court resources or information, or communicating with others" within the courthouse.

In a memo to chief judges of district and circuit courts, across Virginia, Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons stressed the importance of clearly communicating the local policies to the public.

"When making decisions on what policy to adopt, judges and sheriffs should keep in mind the competing interests of promoting access to justice and maintaining security, safety and order in courthouses and courtrooms," Lemons wrote. "[The Supreme Court has] determined that this model policy provides a proper balance between those various interests, and the court recommends this policy for consideration by the district courts and circuit courts of the commonwealth."

Signs touting the no-device policy are a staple in front of area courthouses. These signs advise citizens that phones and mobile devices should be left in a vehicle before entering the building.

The policy defines portable devices as personal computers, tablets, mobile phones, electronic calendars, e-book readers and so-called "snart watches."

The policy suggests use of the devices in lobbies and hallways, as long as they are placed in silent mode. Audio and viceo recording and streaming would be prohibited without written authorization from a judge.

Use of the devices in a courtroom would be left to the discretion of the presiding judge and be limited specifically to the judge's limits.

Any courthouse that prohibits or restricts mibile devices would have to provide storage space, such as lockers.

"Storage of devices may be limited to persons who represent to security personnel that they have no other means of storage available to them, such as a vehicle parked on or near the courthouse premises," the policy states.

Hopewell Sheriff Stephen Kephart admitted he is not a fan of allowing cellphones and mobile devices into the courthouse, not because of convenience but because of the logistics for providing storage for the devices. "They don't want us to just throw them in a pickle barrel and then let the people come get them," he said.

Ideal locker systems can cost around $7,000 to install, and Kephart said that does not include any necessary training his staff would need in storage policies.

"But of course, it's going to be up to what my chief judge tells me, and if he tells me to let it, then I will let it," Kephart said.

Colonial Heights Sheriff Todd B. Wilson said it is "inevitable" that courthouses will eventually adopt their own policies for allowing the devices, since people picking up their phones and putting them in their pocket now "is no different than me putting a Chap Stick into my pocket" -- it is part of the daily routine. He said he and Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard will be working with their judges to adopt a policy that "meshes the need for security with practicality for the public."

©2018 The Progress-Index, Petersburg, Va. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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