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Defendants Are Left Without Phones After Chicago Courthouse Removes Lockers


If you've been in a courtroom in the past decade, you probably got a warning about not using your cell phone. In Chicago's criminal courthouse, phones are banned from the building entirely, and a recent change in the building is putting a real burden on some of the people who find themselves in court. Patrick Smith of member station WBEZ explains.

PATRICK SMITH, BYLINE: Thousands of people have to take public transit to the Cook County Criminal Courthouse each month. And since it's miles from downtown Chicago and any train line, a 10-minute hearing can mean a full day traveling so leaving cell phones behind is not an option - they need them for work or child care or to communicate with their lawyer. Since the ban three years ago, people have relied on pay lockers wedged between the courthouse doors and the security lines - until this past weekend, when the county removed them.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And so there's no phones allowed upstairs. Are you - what are you here for?

SMITH: Maria Thomas spent most of her Tuesday morning traveling for her grandson's court date. It took her three buses and almost two hours.

MARIA THOMAS: We are here and we can't get in.

SMITH: Ben Breit, a spokesman for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, says they're helping out for now, but it won't last long.

BEN BREIT: Sheriff Dart has directed an army (laughter) of sheriff staffers to be on-site here at the criminal courts building.

SMITH: When that army's gone, there could be hundreds of people turned away and no one there to assist them. The sheriff wants the courthouse to again allow cell phones. Deborah Smith tracks cell phone policies for the National Center for State Courts. She says while most allow phones in the building, some in high-crime areas are reconsidering.

SMITH: You know, initially, no cell phones was pretty basic. Then they started letting them in more and more as people became more dependent on them. But now there definitely is this concern about public safety.

SMITH: That was the concern Chief Judge Timothy Evans had when he banned them here three years ago.

TIMOTHY EVANS: Gangs were trying to carry out their revenge in our courtroom and they were attempting to film or take pictures of witnesses, intimidating jurors, trying to intimidate the judges as well.

SMITH: Evans says the only solution is for the county government to just put the lockers back in. But county officials say the lockers were a security risk, and Evans isn't budging on his ban. So for now people are struggling to find a solution. Here's one possibility - you can go to the food truck guy across the street or the parking lot attendant down the block who'll hold your phone for a fee. For NPR News, I'm Patrick Smith in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.