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Column: Courthouse phone bans uncommon

The other day, I went to the courthouse in Sterling and accidentally brought in my cellphone.

A security guard told me I couldn’t take it in. I’m used to following that rule at the county courthouses in Dixon and Morrison, but I forgot it applied to the smaller courthouse in Sterling as well.

As with most such policies, exceptions are made. Attorneys and courthouse employees can bring phones in.

Lee County Sheriff John Varga, who is in charge of the Lee County Courthouse in Dixon, said cellphones are banned because they are a disturbance in court. Also, the county doesn’t want people using their phones to record private conversations outside courtrooms between attorneys and their clients, the sheriff said.

Nationwide, these phone bans apparently are rare.

I called random courthouses in Kentucky, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado, California and Alabama – both in small towns and big cities alike – and they all had the same rule for cellphones: People can bring them into courthouses, but they need to turn them off once they’re inside courtrooms. After all, no one wants a phone disturbing proceedings.

Recently, Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans announced he was banning phones and other electronic devices, including laptops, in courthouses, but after an outcry, he gave a 3-month grace period.

Why did the judge enact the rule? He feared gang members would leak testimony to upcoming witnesses outside the courtroom, compromising cases.

In Chicago, many use mass transit, so they can’t just leave their phones in their cars. According to the Chicago Tribune, Cook County’s courthouses have storage lockers, but they cost $3, they’re often broken, and they’re not big enough for some of the banned items.

In Cook County, the chief judge exempted many people from the ban – current and former judges, attorneys, officers, government employees, reporters, vendors, jurors, domestic violence victims, the disabled and people who are under orders of protection.

Boy, with such broad exceptions, the policy will be a nightmare to enforce.

The Tribune has come out against the ban. Instead, it urges the court to require people to stow away their electronic devices in courtrooms.

The newspaper argued, “Once outside the courtroom, people need their phones to conduct their everyday business.”

For now, I’ll make a mental note: Don’t bring my phone into courthouses.

It’s harder to reach people these days

A decade ago in another town, a car dealer told me he was the only local dealer who listed his number in the phone book.

That was his way of saying he was accessible to his customers.

These days, even fewer people list their numbers; many don’t have land lines at all.

Sauk Valley Media employs 28 people in its newsroom. Three have numbers in local phone books – me and two others.

My number has been in the AT&T phone book the past 2 years (815-535-0668). For some reason, it hasn’t made the Sauk Valley Directory.

Most of my co-workers have given up landlines (or never had them). Or they don’t list their numbers. To be fair, some live outside the area. Still others may be listed under husbands’ names.

The other day, my fellow reporter, Kiran Sood, wrote a blog entry about the advantages of Facebook. I regularly use Facebook, including to reach sources for stories. But the social media site has limits. Often, you can’t reach someone right away on Facebook.

As it is, most people don’t list their cellphone numbers. It’s an issue of privacy, they say.

That’s ironic, because even 10 years ago, most people listed their land lines for all to see. What has changed?

Probably the issue is that numbers now can be placed online, so it’s much easier to access someone, which may be seen as an invasion of privacy.

In the past, reporters have told me they don’t put their numbers in the book because they fear angry readers will call them. I can’t remember a single time that a reader upset over one of my stories called me at home. They contact me (or my supervisors) at work.

Recently, phone books were distributed in Sterling. Kiran reluctantly picked up hers from a stack left at her apartment complex.

I did so eagerly. It may seem quaint, but I like that some people still list their numbers in the book.

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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