Massachusetts Courts Consider Reversing Ban on Cellphones

After an extensive study, a three-member working group concluded that cellphone bans "create unacceptable hardships” and should be phased out in favor of alternative security measures to guard against misuse.

by Gary V. Murray, Telegram & Gazette / May 30, 2019
Shutterstock/Mary Rice

(TNS) — The Massachusetts Trial Court is reconsidering bans on cellphones in many state courthouses in light of a recently completed study and is hoping to rescind such prohibitions wherever possible.

The report, released Wednesday, was produced by a working group formed by the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission that worked closely with the Trial Court to determine ways to allow cellphones to be brought into courthouses while still addressing security concerns.

Many state courthouses, including the Worcester Trial Court, ban cellphones because of security issues that arise when they are used to photograph or record courtroom participants, possibly intimidating or threatening them. Exceptions are made for employees, lawyers, police officers and jurors.

The report describes the challenges faced by court users, particularly self-represented litigants, when they are prohibited entirely from bringing their cellphones into courthouses. It notes that the devices may be needed by those representing themselves in order to present evidence, such as photographs or text messages, to consult their calendars or to reach child care providers.

The study also recognized that courthouses with cellphone bans often lack on-site storage, leaving court users to leave their phones with a third-party for a fee or hide them in bushes outside the courthouse.

After an extensive study, the three-member working group concluded that cellphone bans "create unacceptable hardships and should be phased out in favor of alternative security measures that have been shown to guard against the dangerous misuse of cellphones in the courthouse while still meeting the needs of court users and visitors to have access to their devices."

The report recommended a review of courthouse cellphone bans with an eye toward reducing their numbers and considering alternatives to outright bans in courthouses with significant security concerns. It proposes, for example, a pilot test program involving the use of magnetically locked cellphone pouches that would allow court users to carry their phones but would prevent actual use.

Members of the working group were retired Appeals Court Justice Cynthia J. Cohen, retired Superior Court Justice Paul A. Chernoff and lawyer Jeffrey N. Catalano, former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association and current Access to Justice commissioner.

"We are very appreciative for the extensive research and effort made by the Access to Justice Commission Working Group," said Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey.

"These recommendations are very helpful to the Trial Court as we examine the use of cellphones in courthouses across the Commonwealth. We are mindful that this effort must be integrated to balance safety and security concerns with the need for increased access to cell phones in courthouses wherever possible," Judge Carey said.

Three initial steps the Trial Court plans to take include reviewing and evaluating current courthouse cellphone bans with the intent to rescind any if appropriate, updating and revising the Trial Court policy on possession of cellphones and personal electronic devices to develop a procedure to help allow their usage in courthouses by self-represented litigants, and evaluating the viability of the use of magnetically locked cellphone pouches in courthouses where restrictions on cellphone use are still necessary because of security concerns.

Co-chaired by Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants and lawyer Susan Finegan, the Access to Justice Commission includes representatives from the court system, legal aid organizations, social service agencies, bar associations, law schools, businesses and other stakeholders in the access to justice community.

©2019 Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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