New cellphone policy begins Monday at Philly's Criminal Justice Center

You'll keep your phone, but in a locked bag

New courthouse cell phone lock bags are displayed at recent news conference.

If you have business Monday at Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center, expect delays.

It’s the first day of a new court policy requiring most civilians entering the building to turn off their cellphones and put them into a magnetically sealed “Yondr” pouch that keeps phones locked within a designated no-phone zone. 

You’ll be able to keep your cellphone with you, but you won’t be able to use it. When you’re ready to leave the courthouse at 13th and Filbert Streets, you’ll return to court personnel, who will unlock the pouch and return the phone.

“It’s a 21st century solution to a 21st century problem,” Jacqueline F. Allen, administrative judge for the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, said at a recent news conference unveiling the new system.

Not that there won’t be a learning curve before the public gets used to the new policy.

Court administrator Joseph H. Evers said added personnel will be in the courthouse lobby Monday to help guide the public through the phone-bagging process and security. He said the courts have acquired 4,500 Yondr pouches at a cost of $50,000.

The new system is court officials’ latest effort to deal with the problems caused by cellphones in a criminal courthouse. Rarely does a day go by without somebody’s cellphone going off in one of the building’s 11 floors of courtrooms.

Usually, the offender’s phone is confiscated by court personnel and returned at the end of the day. But sometimes an offender is incarcerated or fined for contempt of court.

And then there is the continuing problem of intimidation: friends of people on trial taking surreptitious photos of witnesses to post on social media.

Years ago, people entering the courthouse were required to surrender their cellphones at security. The phones were placed in individual locked boxes until the owners left the building.

The system was scrapped because of the delays it caused and complaints that phones were damaged or returned to the wrong person.

“The new system keeps the phones in their hands,” Evers said. “It makes them their responsibility, not ours.”

Allen said she first read of the Yondr mobile phone locked box in an October article in the New York Times about how entertainers including Dave Chappelle have begun using them to prevent interruptions and recordings of their concerts.

Yondr has said the Philadelphia criminal courthouse is the first to use the phone pouches for all courthouse visitors.

Evers said the courthouse collected about 3,500 cellphones daily when it used its own locked box system.

Complaints about the new system are likely to come from lawyers who cannot phone clients who are late for a hearing and clients who can’t find their lawyers.

Some people will be exempted from the new requirement: current and former judges, current court employees, lawyers and law enforcement personnel with proper identification, people with disabilities who need an electronic device to communicate, credentialed news reporters with ID.

Jurors will not have to use the pouches but will surrender their phones to courtroom personnel if picked for a trial.

For everyone else, Evers had a suggestion that these days seems almost quaint: Use the pay phones on each floor of the Criminal Justice Center.