By Jake Hofstetter | Research and Policy Associate
In just two decades, cell phones have gone from convenient accessories for making calls to essential tools in our everyday lives. Without our phones we lose not only our capacity to entertain ourselves in waiting rooms, but also the ability to access a repository of information we need for every aspect of our lives. Because of our reliance on our iPhones, there are only a few places where visitors are banned from possessing cell phones: prisons, secret military installations, and, more surprisingly, 56 Massachusetts courthouses. Although well-intentioned, these bans separate court visitors and litigants from an essential tool in managing their cases, leaving many court users without attorneys at a serious disadvantage.
Cell phone bans exist to minimize distractions and make sure courthouses remain safe and confidential. Ringing phones and noises from videos or apps disrupt the functioning and integrity of legal proceedings. On the darker side, gangs or other criminals may use cell phones for photographing or intimidating witnesses and undercover police officers. Although these concerns are legitimate, they shouldn’t outweigh the harm that cell phone bans cause as well as the common-sense solutions that can prevent the misuse of cell phones without banning them.
Evidence from reporting, independent research, and the court system’s own internal investigation continue to show that cell phone bans are harmful to court users representing themselves without attorneys. A report from the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice published last summer demonstrated that cell phone bans prevent court users from presenting evidence, scheduling court dates, and referencing information needed for filling out legal forms. The fact that lawyers can bring their cell phones to court makes these policies even more unfair for those representing themselves. The court system’s own internal investigation, released by the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission last month, also found that blanket cell phone bans created “unacceptable hardships” and should be replaced with more permissive policies such as universal exceptions for those with official business at the court and storage options for facilities that truly need to prohibit cell phone use for security reasons.
Besides frustrating the efforts of those trying to represent themselves in court, cell phone bans also create serious burdens for all court visitors and users. Court users regularly use cell phones to manage childcare, transportation, and their absences from work. Since many people do not know about cell phone bans before coming to court and there are no options for storage, some court users may be left to decide whether to attend their court appearances or not. Others choose to hide their phones outside courthouses in the bushes or pay private businesses to store their phones. These options may lead to court users losing their phones or having to pay extra money, that they may not have to spare, to store them.
Most courthouses don’t need cell phone bans to be safe or orderly. In fact, many courthouses in Massachusetts (and across the country) do not have cell phone bans and function without serious disruptions or witness intimidation. Unfortunately, a minority of court users will always take calls in inappropriate places or, worse, record court proceedings for nefarious purposes. As the court system’s own internal investigation noted, however, it is fairer to court users to regulate the use of cell phones rather than the possession of cell phones. The first approach leads to reasonable policies where cell phone use can be restricted in certain facilities or courtrooms. The second approach creates an unfair burden on those who cannot afford to hire an attorney to represent them and makes it difficult for all members of our technology-attached society to use courthouses.
Changing cell phone bans in courthouses may seem like a small step, but it is an important one in expanding access to justice in Massachusetts. The growing numbers of people who must represent themselves in court already have trouble navigating our complex legal system without having to give up an essential tool like their smartphone. The court system and Access to Justice Commission deserve credit for their willingness to study this issue as well as their recognition that cell phone bans are harmful and should be replaced with more permissive and effective policies. These changes will also assure that our legal system remains fair and up to date with the rapid technological change occurring all around us.
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