CHICAGO - Cook County's top judge announced Tuesday that the public will be barred from bringing cellphones, tablet computers and other electronics into criminal courthouses, citing an increasing concern that gang members are using the technology to influence courtroom proceedings.
Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans said devices "capable of connecting to the Internet or making audio or video recordings" would be banned beginning Jan. 14 at all 13 criminal court facilities in the county. The Daley Center in downtown Chicago was excluded since mostly civil matters are handled there.
The policy change, announced in a news release, was made without the input of the Cook County Sheriff's Office, which is responsible for day-to-day security at the courthouses, said spokesman Frank Bilecki.
Bilecki said the rule could lead to a host of practical issues, from a shortage of storage kiosks for cellphones currently posted in courthouse lobbies to how to deal with people trying to get to non-court-related facilities such as social service centers at the courthouse locations.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions that would have to be worked out very quickly if this is going to happen," Bilecki said.
The judge was not available for comment Tuesday afternoon, but Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle also was not consulted before the change was announced, said spokeswoman Kristen Mack.
In his release, Evans said the move was prompted after criminal judges complained that people attending court proceedings were using cellphones to photograph witnesses, judges and jurors. Some judges also said spectators "appeared to be texting testimony to witnesses waiting their turn to testify outside the courtroom," he said.
"The court is sending a strong message to gang members and others that any attempts to intimidate witnesses, jurors and judges in court will not be permitted," Evans said.
Anyone violating the ban could face prosecution for contempt of court, he said.
Current and former judges, attorneys, law enforcement officers, government employees, members of the public reporting for jury service and news reporters won't be subject to the ban, Evans said.
The crackdown comes as Cook County nears allowing cameras in courtrooms on an experimental basis.