Cell phones banned in district courts

Balto. Co. officials say gang activity spurred new policy

June 11, 2006|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

Hurrying into court one recent morning to deal with a speeding ticket, Kandice Madison brushed past the notices posted on the glass doors of the Baltimore County District Court in Towson.

"NO CELL PHONES ALLOWED IN DISTRICT COURT BUILDINGS," the signs, on letter-size paper, read.

Moments later, Madison was back out the door, phone in hand.

"It's kind of inconvenient," the 20-year-old West Baltimore resident said, expressing frustration at being told to return her phone to her car, which was parked eight blocks away. "I'm already late for my court date. I can't go all the way back to my car."

So, she scurried off to find a bush where she could hide her phone.

Madison, like other courthouse visitors, was caught off-guard by a new policy in Baltimore County's three District Court buildings in Towson, Essex and Catonsville. Unlike the county's Circuit Court and many other circuit and district courthouses across the state that prohibit only camera phones, the district courts in Baltimore County began banning all cell phones this month.

Judge Alexandra N. Williams, administrative judge of Baltimore County's district courts, said the new rules were instituted for a reason other than the one most people might expect.

"Gangs prompted the ban on cell phones," Williams told a recent gathering of the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, explaining that a gang member was seen taking pictures in court of judges, police officers and witnesses with a camera phone. "So when you see the signs [banning phones], it's not because they were ringing in court."

As court officials have grown more sensitive to potential security risks and cell phone technology has advanced, adding photographic, video, walkie-talkie and text-messaging capabilities to devices that used to be nothing more than miniature, portable telephones, courthouses have responded in various ways.

According to the Maryland Court Information Office, courthouses in Baltimore City and in Frederick, Washington, Prince George's, Kent, Cecil, Harford and Howard counties prohibit cell phones that take pictures, primarily because cameras are not allowed in courts statewide.

District courts in Allegany, Garrett, Montgomery, Talbot, Caroline, Queen Anne's, Howard, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties allow all cell phones, but generally require visitors to turn them off or keep them silent while in the courtroom.

The Circuit Court of Worcester County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, allows cell phones and pagers in the courthouse but not in courtrooms.

And at least two jurisdictions other than Baltimore County - Charles and Saint Mary's counties, both in Southern Maryland - do not allow any cell phones in their courthouses, according to the court information office. Calvert County is in the process of banning all cell phones in courthouses, as are the district courts of Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties.

"We've never allowed them, from the time that cell phones first became readily available," said Lt. Michael Klotz, commander of judicial services with the Charles County Sheriff's Office in La Plata. "We just determined back then that pagers and cell phones were not allowed in our courthouse because of the potential disruption."

In addition to ringing at inopportune moments in the courtroom, cell phones also present a security risk, he said.

"Now, with new technology today, you've got the cameras and the video recorders on them and, due to terror situations and high-profile court cases, the technology exists where bombs can be detonated via cell phones," said Klotz. He added that he has even received intelligence about cell phones and pagers being converted into single-shot firearms.

Mike Vach, the administrative clerk of Baltimore County's district court system, referred all questions to the Maryland Court Information Office.

In e-mailed responses, Rita Buettner, a spokeswoman for the state courts, wrote that Baltimore County's ban was prompted by increased concerns nationwide about cell phones equipped with cameras and walkie-talkie capabilities in courtrooms and by a desire to minimize disruptions from people who neglect to turn off their phones, as directed by the bailiffs.

Court officials also learned of people in Catonsville district court using camera phones to photograph judges, witnesses, prosecutors and others involved in cases, Buettner wrote.

"Then the court also learned that someone in the courtroom was broadcasting a court case to someone outside," she added. "Because of safety concerns for people involved in the cases, and to avoid face-to-face confrontations in the courtroom, the court decided the best solution was to ban all cell phones."

District court officials decided that a ban on only camera phones would require courthouse security to inspect every phone brought into the building and delay court proceedings, Buettner wrote.

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