Policy changed on electronic devices in courthouse

January 10, 2011|By DON AINES |

HAGERSTOWN — The prohibition on bringing most electronic devices into the Washington County Courthouse has been lifted, meaning people won’t have to hide their cell phones outside or walk them back to their cars.

“This should make the public happy,” said Court Administrator Eunice Plank. “I’ve seen people hide them in the bushes outside” because cell phones with cameras were prohibited, she said.

“It’s just being reasonable. You hate to tell someone, especially if they are elderly or it’s raining or snowing, that you have to take the phone back to your car,” said Col. Randy Wilkinson of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

The prohibition ended Jan. 1, when Maryland Rule 16-110 went into effect. It allows the public to bring cell phones, cameras and other devices into a “court facility,” defined as a building housing circuit or district court.

“Any kind of cell phone is now allowed in a courthouse, but it can’t be used in courtrooms or on the floors with courtrooms,” Circuit Court Administrative Judge John H. McDowell said last week.
People found using the devices in those areas could have them confiscated until the end of the day, he said.

The new rule raises concerns that the ban on cell phones and cameras was meant to address, McDowell said. Protecting the identities of confidential informants and jurors is one of them, he said.

Someone secretly photographing, recording or transmitting information from a courtroom could place informants or jurors in the position of being “contacted, harassed or even threatened,” McDowell said.

Witnesses are often sequestered during a trial — ordered not to be in the courtroom unless testifying and to not discuss their testimony. McDowell said wireless devices could conceivably be used by spectators to send messages to witnesses waiting to testify.

“I wouldn’t hesitate to impose a sanction if something like that happened because it’s affecting the integrity of the trial itself,” McDowell said.

Sanctions could include incarceration if the transgression is serious enough, he said.

“The deputies are going to be tasked with really watching people” to prevent texting and videotaping, Plank said.

The rule brings consistency across the state because policies varied from county to county, she said.

“It is going to require us to be a little more vigilant,” Wilkinson said, although he expects most people will cooperate.

Additionally, jurors cannot take electronic devices into deliberation rooms, McDowell said. Cell phones can be used to conduct research on the Internet, but jurors are only supposed to consider the evidence presented in court, he said.

The new rules, posted at the entrances of the courthouse and district court include the following:

  • The use of the device shall not disturb court proceedings.
  • Devices shall be turned off and out of view when inside a courtroom.
  • Devices are not permitted to take or record a photograph, video or other visual image in a court facility, or transmit a photograph, video or other visual image from or within a court facility.

That last rule has exceptions for marriage ceremonies, adoptions and historical record searches, the notice says.

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