news

Philly courts bar cellphones, hoping to curb witness intimidation

Jason Nark, Staff Writer

Updated: Thursday, February 23, 2017, 1:30 PM

Philadelphia’s courtrooms are taking a cue from Dave Chappelle, Guns n’ Roses, and Childish Gambino by implementing new forms of technology to restrict an ubiquitous one.

The goal: reducing witness tampering by restricting the use of cellphones in court.

Starting April 3, many visitors to the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice on Filbert Street will be required to turn off their cellphones and place them in a portable “pouch” that will remain locked until they leave the building. The First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, in a news release Thursday, said the new rule aims “to deter, if not eliminate, intimidation of witnesses and courtroom disruptions.”

“The proliferation of mobile devices throughout society has given rise to safety and security concerns in our courtrooms,” wrote Judge Jacqueline F. Allen of the Court of Common Pleas.

The pouch, created by the San Francisco-based Yondr, has mostly been used by musicians and comedians, according to reports on the company’s web site.

When visitors are ready to leave, the pouch will be unlocked by a magnetic disk. The distribution and collection of the pouches will be handled by the Sheriff’s Office.

Numerous groups will be exempt from the ban, including jurors, lawyers, employees, police officers, people with disabilities, caseworkers, and news media staff.

Any effort to reduce witness intimidation and improve courtroom security is "something the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office supports," said Cameron L. Kline, spokesman for District Attorney Seth Williams.

Lorraine Donnelly, who worked as an assistant district attorney for 10 years, said witness intimidation with a cellphone is “1,000 percent a problem.” She recalled a preliminary hearing in a murder case where a person in the audience snapped a photo of a witness and posted it on an Instagram page about “snitches.”

“I don’t know if this pouch thing is going to work, but controlling the cellphone for people in the audience is a good idea,” said Donnelly, who is now with the firm Wilkes & McHugh.

Veteran criminal defense attorney Jack McMahon said he thinks the cellphone plan will make a chaotic venue even worse, with longer lines.

‘Who knows, some days it feels like a comedy show down there,” McMahon said. “When you make a step like that, there has to be a significant problem. In my dealings, it’s not been a real issue.”

McMahon said it’s important for him to have contact with witnesses, defendants, and their family members while in the courthouse.

“It will create a logistical nightmare and a problem between counsel and their family,” McMahon said.

President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper, in the news release, said the program “has received broad support from our justice partners.”

“While we realize there may be some concerns about the new restrictions, we believe we have found a realistic way to increase safety in our courthouse without placing too much of a burden on the people we serve," she said.

Kelly Taylor, a spokeswoman for Yondr, said Philadelphia's was the first judicial system to use its product on a courthouse-wide basis. Yondr also is used in a handful of courts in Texas for jurors, Taylor said.

Taylor said the company would not disclose how much the courts paid.

An October article in the New York Times said the company rents the pouches for $2 a day but offers discounts for “large quantities” and schools.

Yondr’s founder, Graham Dugoni, had a philosophical bent about his company’s purpose.

“I view it as a social movement, and this is one piece of the puzzle,” Dugoni told the Times. “It’s about helping people live in the digital age in a way that doesn’t hollow out all of the meaning in your life.”

Jason Nark, Staff Writer

Read full story: Philly courts bar cellphones, hoping to curb witness intimidation