portable electronic devices in courtrooms

The Illinois Supreme Court recently announced that every state courthouse in Illinois will be required to adopt individual orders or rules regarding the use of portable electronic devices, like cell phones or personal computers, within courthouse buildings and courtrooms.

This update follows a recommendation by the Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission (ATJ Commission). The ATJ Commission’s Court Guidance & Training Committee began working on a policy and recommendation in 2018 and gathered a working group of stakeholders, including many sheriffs.

“The courts must adapt with the times, and this is an important way to address the needs of court users,” Chief Justice Anne M. Burke said. “It is no longer realistic to ask people to leave cell phones and other electronics at home when they visit courthouses.”

Reducing roadblocks for SRLs

While many courthouses already allow courtroom staff, lawyers, and jurors to have electronic portable devices in courtrooms, some have barred members of the public and self-represented litigants (SRLs) from doing the same, which has created roadblocks for court users, said Jill Roberts, Supervising Senior Program Manager in the Access to Justice Division of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts.

For example, in today’s hybrid court system, court users may appear in person at their courthouse only to be directed to attend court on Zoom, Roberts said. While some courthouses have “Zoom rooms” for this purpose, court users are often asked to use their cell phones when these spaces are unavailable.

If users knew phones weren’t allowed in the courthouse and left theirs at home, they risk not being able to make their appearance on time despite being at the courthouse.

Additionally, the lack of mobile devices has complicated scheduling additional court appearances, arranging rides home from the courthouse, and completing mandatory e-filings at court e-filing stations, which requires the verification of a link sent by email.

“If you don’t have your cell phone with you, it is impossible to verify that email since nearly all email programs require authentication if logging in from a new device, verification that is usually sent to your cell phone,” Roberts said.

Anecdotally, Roberts said that she has heard of people rushing to their cars to get a verification code or link sent to their cell phone, but then never coming back to the courthouse, possibly abandoning their cases entirely.

Allowing courts to establish policies

The new policy permits individual courts to address any security issues by allowing restrictions on the use of portable electronic devices in a circuit court’s local orders or rules. If devices are restricted, however, courthouses must provide free storage for the equipment.

Champaign County, the first county to publicly change their policy, has opted to allow the general public to bring cellphones and other portable electronic devices into county courthouses. However, there are caveats.

For example, devices aren’t to be used in a courtroom without the judge’s permission and the public isn’t permitted to take photos, audio, or video in the courtroom except for events like weddings and graduations in problem-solving courts.

Even with these restrictions, Roberts says allowing cell phones and other devices in the courthouse makes accessing information to support legal matters easier.

“SRLs having access to their devices while in the courthouse allows the ATJ Commission to further promote and develop web-based resources that people can access on their mobile devices while in the courthouse to get information and resources they might need,” Roberts said. “Although we certainly need to be mindful of the digital divide, more and more people have access to a mobile device, and we can rely on that to offer and expand the resources and information available to litigants.”

Where will this policy take effect?

Individual courts will decide the exact parameters of portable electronic device usage in their courtrooms. Some counties have already embraced the change, while others, like McLean County, have maintained stricter guidelines.

In either event, instructions from the Illinois Supreme Court mandate clear signage explaining policies and restrictions.

Nationally, the National Center for State Courts lists policies on portable electronic devices for court systems in 33 U.S. states and territories. Each policy attempts to balance the necessity of portable devices for a variety of court functions with potential security and safety risks.

In 2017, the U.S. Judicial Conference provided detailed guidance for courts on creating policies for the use of portable communication devices in courthouses.

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