Courthouse security focuses on camera phones

Photography ban affects popular portable devices

July 05, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Like most people with cell phones, Kathleen McDonald carries hers with her most of the time. But for about 90 minutes one recent morning, while she argued during a civil motions hearing at the Baltimore County courthouse in Towson, McDonald had to leave her phone locked up with security officers.

And she wasn't alone.

McDonald's phone takes pictures, and cameras aren't allowed in courtrooms in Maryland. So, in an age of heightened security and terrorism alerts, when officers are busy screening courthouse visitors for guns, knives and other potential weapons, they're adding camera phones to their list of items to watch out for.

At some courthouses, it has meant more work than at others.

"More than a half million people come here to the courthouse annually ... and a majority of the people have cell phones," said Baltimore County Sheriff R. Jay Fisher. "If it is a camera phone, we take it and put a little evidence tag on it, like checked baggage at the airport.

"You get some people who protest, but we try to be professional and tell them that recording devices are not allowed in the courtroom," he said. "If they don't surrender their phones, we ask them to leave."

Procedures for dealing with camera phones vary from courthouse to courthouse. In Towson and Baltimore, the phones are held in locked drawers until their owners reclaim them.

In Howard County, the phones must be taken outside the building. And in Anne Arundel County, they're allowed in courtrooms, but are confiscated if deputies catch people using them - either to talk or take pictures.

In Baltimore City, visitors are given the option of leaving their camera phones at the guard's desk or returning them to their cars. Many people, pushed for time, leave the phones and retrieve them later.

"I guess we get about six of those camera phones a day," said Maj. Ernest Hargrove, chief of security for the Baltimore City Sheriff's Office. "Right now we have enough manpower to cover it, but with a lot of people buying these camera phones, it could become a problem storing them."

Hargrove said people are told that deputies aren't responsible for any damages.

"Somebody could give you a damaged phone, but when they come back to pick it up, say it wasn't [previously] damaged," Hargrove said. "Then they want to tell you how much it costs, and these things are very expensive nowadays."

Peggy Smith, security supervisor for the Baltimore County courts building, said she is seeing an increasing number of camera phones at the courthouse. From June 21 to 27, she said, deputies held 181 camera phones.

In addition to cell phones, security guards must also closely examine Palm Pilots and watches for cameras, Smith said.

Most people don't seem to mind leaving their cell phones at the desk, but some get upset, Smith said. Some mothers point out that they could miss a call from their baby sitters, and others say they're expecting an important call.

But Smith said there are few exceptions, and they have to be granted by Administrative Judge John G. Turnbull II. They could include people who are coming to the courthouse to get married and want to capture it on film.

McDonald, a Baltimore attorney, said she was surprised when security officers asked about her phone.

"I thought they wanted to make sure it wasn't an explosive device or anything," she said. "I've never taken a camera inside a courthouse before. It just never entered my mind."

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