Electronics banned at courthouse

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."


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rsp wrote on August 05, 2012 at 4:08 pm

I always thought the Judge was being disingenuous. First cell phones were banned because they could take pictures but I was always allowed to have my camera. I even made efforts to show the Judge I had it in court. He never commented on it and nothing changed. But it didn't have a nasty habit of ringing in open court. Now all these new devices are around and some jury members have started complaining. Sounds like a new strategy is needed for jury security, not just banning electronics.

Learning2B wrote on August 05, 2012 at 4:08 pm

What about those couples getting married or having their civil unions performed at the courthouse?  Will they still be allowed to bring in cameras, or will they have to wait until they are outside the building?

wayward wrote on August 05, 2012 at 6:08 pm

I wonder if this could affect people's willingness to serve as jurors?  Sure, electronic devices should be turned off and put away during the trial and deliberations, but people who get called for jury duty sometimes have to spend a lot of time sitting around.

It's also not readily apparent what can or cannot "transmit."  IIRC, the courthouse does not provide public wi-fi, so even an e-reader, tablet, or laptop that was didn't have a data provider (e.g., wi-fi only) wouldn't be doing any transmitting or receiving while in the courthouse.

The problem with this approach is that it puts the court system in the role of trying to police the jurors, which may be an impossible task.  How can you prevent a juror from looking up information over a lunch break or in the evening during a multi-day trial? Jurors are adults and should be treated as such.


rsp wrote on August 05, 2012 at 8:08 pm

And I think newspapers are still allowed. That will make that newspaper kiosk outside the courthouse handy. 

wayward wrote on August 05, 2012 at 8:08 pm

I'm guessing that Difanis mostly doesn't want jurors posting stupid stuff that could result in a mistrial.  As far as outside research, the county website helpfully posts the court schedule online at http://www.cccircuitclerk.com/Calendar.asp and a really curious juror with too much time on his hands could probably look up the cases and figure out which ones might be going to trial while he was on jury duty.

What bothers me about the decision is the low expectations and lack of respect for jurors.  Confiscating electronics sends the message that the court doesn't expect them to do the right thing when nobody's policing them, but at the same time, these jurors may be making decisions with that seriously impact other peoples' lives.  Kind of a strange mixed message.

787 wrote on August 05, 2012 at 9:08 pm

So nice to know that we have a judge who uses the word "ain't".

Ain't.   Really, Judge?  You really couldn't find a better word that *that*?

I hope I never land in Judge Hickory Hick's courtroom.

Good Lord, is this Kentucky or Arkansas?


Add this to our esteemed State's Attorney who lets people like Herbert Shah act like a one man crime wave while she apparently hides under her desk... and we wonder why there are problems in this county?

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on August 10, 2012 at 7:08 am
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Lord Peter Wimsey said "ain't" all the time, and he's a toff.

AerieDweller wrote on August 06, 2012 at 1:08 am

Knitting needles are prohibited, too...

wayward wrote on August 06, 2012 at 8:08 am

Maybe he's afraid that Madame DeFarge will end up on a jury.

Sid Saltfork wrote on August 06, 2012 at 1:08 pm

It was the best of time, and the worst of times for those who have been summoned for jury duty in the two cities.  It is a good citizen's duty to appear for jury duty; or face the man knocking on your door for failing to appear.  Having served on juries; I am always amazed by others who want to serve, but were never summoned.  The disturbing part of being on a jury of one's peers is the peers on the jury.  Sitting in the jury room waiting to be called for the jury selection is boring, and long.  Having a good book to read with you is important; but sadly, many of the potential jurors no longer read.  Some judges insist that you take notes during the testimony; but sadly, many jurors cannot write well enough to take notes.  Going to lunch requires wearing juror badges which draws attention from others.  Smoke breaks do not exist either.  Some alternate jurors who attend become the Madame DeFarge character hoping that one of the jurors becomes ill; and have to be replaced by them.  It is an experience in viewing contemporary human behavior dealing out justice.  If I ever break the law, and appear in court; I would rather not have a jury trial, and rely on the judge.    

Dan J wrote on August 06, 2012 at 9:08 pm
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One thing in particular caught my attention:

"Difanis said lawyers, courthouse employees and working reporters will be exempted from the ban."

What is the definition of "working reporter"? If I write a blog and want to publish an article relevant to a particular case, am I exempt from the ban? This screams out as a First Amendment issue for me as far as the vagueness of this exemption goes.

STM wrote on August 10, 2012 at 12:08 pm

So restrict jurors.  What's the big complication here?  It's already to the point where we have to strip to enter the place.  Airports are easier to get into and out of than that courthouse. I think guys like Difanis are willfully ignorant and simply like throwing their authority around.

Marti Wilkinson wrote on August 11, 2012 at 6:08 am

Unless the jury is sequestered during the course of a trial, it would be a challenge to impose restrictions on access to information. The jurors will have to be trusted to not seek out information or discuss the case when they go home for the evening. 

Recently I did take a friend of mine to the courthouse so she could pay some tickets. I remembered to leave my cell phone in my car, but the x-ray equipment did detect my Sony E-Reader. I simply took it out, put it in a separate bin and the staff ran it through the machines. The reader itself has to be hooked up with a USB cord in order to transfer books, so it does not "transmit" information. Still I would not have an issue with leaving it in my car or at home.

Dan J posed a good question in regards to what is considered to be a reporter. There are student reporters, bloggers, and citizen journalists who do report on local cases.  My own particular reading of this article indicates that electronic devices that record videos and take pictures are restricted. A person could probably bring a voice recorder and use that to supplement any hand written notes that are taken. It would be useful to get some clarification to see if voice recorders are allowed.

Unlike daily print newspapers, and broadcast media, many online blogs can be published and updated at any time. As such, I don't see the restrictions as being something that could have a huge impact. Now if Judge Difanis were to restrict student reporters, bloggers, or citizen journalists from reporting on these cases, then an argument can be made in regards to the first admendment.