Days before a ban on electronic devices was to take effect at most Cook County courthouses, Circuit Court of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans on Friday announced a three-month grace period.
The order banning electronic devices -- including cellphones, laptops and tablets -- is now scheduled to be in place April 15.
Affected courthouses include the Third Municipal District in Rolling Meadows, the Second Municipal District in Skokie and the George Leighton Criminal Courts Building at 26th Street and California Avenue in Chicago. Exempt from the ban is the Richard J. Daley Center Courthouse in Chicago, where civil matters, traffic offenses and misdemeanors are heard.
During the interim period, sheriff's deputies will remind people entering the courthouse of the ban and urge them to leave electronic devices in their cars. Also over the next three months, court representatives will work with county facility representatives to devise a storage system for the devices -- possibly involving claim checks or lockers -- to accommodate people using public transportation to access the courthouses.
Evans issued a judicial order in December banning devices that connect to the Internet or are capable of making video or audio recordings. He cited judges' concerns that individuals attending court proceedings were "using their cellphones to photograph witnesses, judges, jurors and prospective jurors."
In issuing the order, Evans referenced judges' concerns that courtroom observers were texting witnesses waiting to testify. Designed as a protective measure, the ban sends a message to gang members and others that courts will not tolerate attempts to intimidate witnesses, jurors or judges, Evans said in a prepared statement released last month.
"It was clear the intimidations were bold and brazen," Evans said, referring to one case in which someone streamed live to the Internet a judge's statements during a sentencing.
Input from advocacy groups and attorneys, along with additional investigation into how other Illinois counties and neighboring states addressed the issue, prompted the grace period, said Evans. He said he continues to pursue ways to better implement the order.
"One of the things this grace period allows us to do is to (consider) additional issues we may have to address," he said, adding it gives people time to make appropriate adjustments.
Initially, the order exempted anyone performing official court business including licensed attorneys, their agents or employees; law enforcement officers; government employees; current and former judges; jurors and prospective jurors; maintenance and repair personnel; vendors and members of the media. The order allows judges to exempt other parties as well.
Friday's order adds to that list domestic violence counselors and advocates; anyone seeking or covered by orders of protection; anyone participating in domestic violence related programs; people with disabilities who use electronic communication devices; anyone with a court-ordered electronic monitoring device and anyone else authorized by the court. It restricts the use of electronic devices to public areas outside the courtrooms.
Victim advocate Denise Wolf Markham, executive director of Life Span, a group that advocates for victims of domestic violence, outlined her organization's concerns about the ban in a letter to Evans. Referencing the absence of pay phones at courthouses, Markham pointed out that cellphones are critical to ensuring the safety of some domestic violence victims.
Markham applauded the judge's new order.
"I'm very relieved that our clients are going to be able to be safe and not have to face being without their lifeline," she said.
"I'm gratified (Evans) was so responsive to the community and their concerns."