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Most federal courthouses prohibit two items: weapons and cell phones. Electronic devices are like a plague that has descended upon courts, and, like the most virulent germs, they survive by morphing into ever more sophisticated forms. Pagers became cell phones and then picture phones. Laptops were trumped by PDAs (personal digital assistants, such as a BlackBerry). Both often have recording capabilities. And now stun guns come disguised as cell phones — but it is safe to assume that these fall into the weapons category and are banned. When it comes to nonweapon electronic devices, lawyers and their clients had better check the local rules. One rule of thumb involving cell phones, though, seems to be consistent: If you bring it into court, one day it will ring — and it will cost you. Lawrence F. Clark, a Dauphin County, Pa., judge, recently ordered a bailiff to drop a ringing cell phone out of a five-story window onto a roof below. Fortunately, the bailiff had taken it away from its owner first. But while lawyers and members of the public are getting the message about electronic gadgetry in the courthouse, an old prohibition looms over new technology — picture phones, recorders in laptops and PDAs. The Illinois Supreme Court has long banned camera and recording devices in courtrooms. In December, it clarified its definitions: “[T]he use of the terms ‘photographs,’ ‘broadcasting’ and ‘televising’ include the audio or video transmissions or recordings made by telephones, personal data assistants, laptop computers and other wired or wireless data transmission and recording devices.” THE CELL PHONE POLICE Deputy sheriffs are trained to spot the devices with those capabilities among members of the public, said Gary Dodge, court administrator for Illinois’ 18th Judicial Circuit in DuPage County. “If one is spotted, they’re required to return them to their vehicles,” Dodge said. “We’re reluctant to take them away from attorneys, because they’ve got work to do, but they understand the ramifications of breaking the rules.” Taking a picture or recording sound is an ethical violation, Dodge said. A now-retired traffic court judge in DuPage County is reputed to have jailed three ringing cell phone offenders for contempt — one overnight. In Charleston, S.C., which has a ban similar to the Illinois model, a judge jailed a mother of three for two nights for a phone that rang during a sentencing hearing. But she got off easy compared to the prisoner who was sentenced to life right before she was jailed. Judge John Fogleman in Arkansas’ 2nd Judicial District eschews jailing offenders, but takes their ringing phones away — temporarily — and puts them in a drawer. “On pleas and arraignment days, it’s near chaos,” he said, so he warns everyone beforehand to turn off their electronic devices. Last December, he had the bailiff take an offending phone away from a young woman. It rang again. He tried but couldn’t figure out how to turn it off, so he answered it “to get it from keep ringing. It was a man on the other end,” Fogleman said. “It wasn’t clear to me whether he was trying to complete a drug or a prostitution deal. I said, ‘Can I tell her who’s calling?’ and he hung up.” Fogleman wouldn’t consider jailing phone offenders unless they resisted his bailiffs’ efforts to take their phones away. Picture phones, though, have become a problem with no solution yet in sight. No pictures are allowed in Arkansas courts without the consent of both parties and the judge. “We’re not up with the game yet,” Fogleman said. “We’d probably never really know for sure, so we may have to pass a rule eliminating them all together. There could be a lot of mischief we don’t allow.” Besides protecting witnesses and prisoners, U.S. marshals have added cell phone vigilance to their mission of protecting federal courts. Billy Walker, judicial court security officer for the Middle District of Florida, a deputy U.S. marshal, said rules are consistent in four of the district’s locations in Fort Myers, Orlando, Ocala and Jacksonville: No cell phones. In Tampa, Fla., though, there’s an experimental project that allows lawyers to check cell phones in lockers in the lobby of the federal building. Laptops are allowed by individual court order. PDAs are allowed if they do not have recording or photo-taking capabilities. “It is a difficult task that requires each device to be screened,” said Walker. “The ever-changing and evolving technology and the multifunctions of devices makes the delineation between acceptable and unacceptable devices difficult.” Translation: He appreciates the fact that lawyers and the general public don’t get hot-tempered when the lines to enter their federal buildings back up. Anchorage, Alaska’s Chief Deputy U.S. Marshall Wanda Phillips has seen what happens when new technology meets new technology and it’s not pretty. It turned out that a cell phone in the silent mode or one that vibrated disrupted the court’s new recording system. Thus the ban. No checking them in with marshals either. “We don’t have the room or the staff,” Phillips said. “They have to leave them elsewhere, in their cars or somewhere else.” But separating a lawyer from a cell phone may be disorienting. “At first they were a little confused,” Phillips said, referring to their having to leave cell phones outside the courthouse. BULLET-FIRING CELL PHONES Florida’s Walker has seen a stun gun that masquerades as a cell phone, and another cell phone that fires a .22-caliber long-rifle bullet, but so far no one has tried to smuggle either through security. Neither of these phonelike weapons functions as a phone and one can only hope that drivers holding cell phones to their heads during the morning commute didn’t pick up the wrong devices from their nightstands. The ban on cell phones in federal courts has caused reporters their share of embarrassment, too. Journalists barred from using the phones in New York federal court flew to the courthouse steps after the Martha Stewart trial concluded waving scarves and placards in an effort to be first to report the verdict — some succeeded in getting the details wrong in their initial reports.

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