Cellphones banned from local courtrooms

GREENFIELD — Judges have banned all cellphones and electronic devices from being brought inside Hancock County courtrooms, and those who attempt to sneak them in risk being held in contempt.

Going forward, people visiting the Hancock County Courthouse will be told to leave their cellphones in their cars, officials said.

Only those visiting probation or the county clerk’s office and courthouse employees may carry the devices into the courthouse. Attorneys may have cellphones in the courtroom, but they can be used only for judge-approved purposes.

Should visitors skirt the rules, they face a contempt of court charge and “a fine of at least $50,” the order states.

The new protocol is the latest in a series of updates made at the courthouse to improve security, bringing the local justice center up to par with similar facilities around the state, officials said.

Leaders of Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, which is tasked with putting in place security measures at the courthouse, have been working to tighten security at the courthouse for the past year.

Access to the courthouse was limited a year ago to one door on the building’s east side, and alarms were added to all other entrances. A metal detector and small X-ray machine were added to the east entrance earlier this year.

Bailiffs now also can turn patrons away if they consider their attire inappropriate for the courthouse, including those wearing “hats, cut-offs, tank tops, ripped clothing, open-back shirts and clothing which displays profanity, nudity, drugs or gang symbols,” the official order dictates.

The new clothing rules aim to keep attire business appropriate, said Hancock Circuit Court Judge Richard Culver.

Local judges have been working for the past two years to put sensible regulations in place for limiting cellphone use in the building, Culver said.

The standing rule had been visitors had to keep their phones powered off during hearings and trials, but even with constant reminders from court security, proceedings were often interrupted by buzzes, beeps and rings, Culver said.

More importantly, judges had concerns about what else cellphones were being used for, Culver said. They can be used as recorders, cameras and computers, devices that have always been prohibited from local courtrooms, he said.

Judges worried about people taking advantage of the lack of security and secretly recording testimony made on the witness stand or photographing those who have assisted in an investigation, Culver said.

Before local attorneys may use their cellphones, they’ll have to get permission from the judge — a first in Hancock County history, officials said.

Lawyers often treat their phones as calendars, use them to check whether a defendant has been booked into to the local jail or browse the web to correctly cite a judicial case, Culver said. Those are examples of acceptable reasons to use cellphones in court, but judges don’t want those same lawyers texting or playing games in between hearings, he said.

Only the Hancock County commissioners can ban cellphones entirely at the courthouse, a move they haven’t taken; judges only have the power to regulate what happens in their courtrooms.

Bailiffs say patrons may still bring their phones to the upper levels of the courthouse. But before they can enter a courtroom, they’ll have to leave their phones in the lobby area. Baliffs, however, won’t take responsibility if a phone is stolen or lost.

Maj. Brad Burkhart, the sheriff’s chief deputy, said he’s proud of the progress made in recent weeks to keep those coming into the building safe. He wanted to see a cellphone policy be put in place and sees it as a final tier of needed security updates. Now, the sheriff’s officers who staff the courthouse can focus their attention on more pressing duties, such as checking for weapons, silencing outbursts and keeping the building safer for employees and visitors — rather than reminding people to silence their cellphones, he said.

“I wanted to decrease what the bailiffs have to monitor,” Burkhart said. “I think we’ve accomplished quite a lot in the last year.”

Author photo
Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.