Electronics banned at courthouse
URBANA — If you're on jury duty or waiting for a friend at the Champaign County Courthouse and need something to occupy your time, better plan on it being knitting, a magazine or a paperback book.
A Supreme Court rule approved in mid-July that instructs jurors not to engage in Internet research while a trial is going on prompted Presiding Judge Tom Difanis to expand his five-year-old ban on cell phones.
"If it's got an on-off switch, it ain't coming in. Bring one that you can feel the pages as you turn them," said Difanis, a self-described "Luddite."
Since March 1, 2007, the public, with a few exceptions such as lawyers, doctors and news reporters, has been prohibited from bringing cell phones into the courthouse because of their ability to take pictures and make video recordings.
In spite of a Supreme Court rule approved in January that reversed a decades-old ban on cameras and recorders in courtrooms, Difanis still has not allowed that to happen locally.
As such, he's expanding his cell phone ban to include other kinds of gadgets such as laptop computers or electronic tablets for reading.
"Whatever can transmit," he said.
Difanis said the judges are required to instruct jurors, before a trial gets under way, that they are not to do any independent investigation or research on any subject or person relating to the case. That, along with an admonition not to read newspapers or listen to news broadcasts while trials are going on, has long been the case.
But with the surge in popularity of social media like Facebook and Twitter, the Supreme Court felt compelled to spell out that jurors may not use the Internet to search for or relay information about an ongoing case.
"During the course of the trial, do not communicate with, provide information personally, in writing, or electronically to anyone about this case — not even your own families or friends, courtroom personnel, and also not even among yourselves until instructed otherwise," the rule now states.
Although jurors are already being instructed about not communicating, Difanis said the all-out electronics ban won't go into effect until Sept. 1, to give people time to get prepared.
Difanis said lawyers, courthouse employees and working reporters will be exempted from the ban.
Sheriff Dan Walsh, whose job it is to maintain security for the courthouse, put signs up on the courthouse doors warning of the ban last week.
He's hopeful people will heed the warning. Despite similar signs banning cell phones, people often enter the building with them only to be told to take them back to their car.
"People need to leave them at home or in their car," Walsh said of all electronics. "We don't have the staff or storage space to hold dozens of computers, e-readers and iPads."