Delaware courts on Monday began testing the effect of allowing the public to bring cell phones into select courts in all three counties, after banning electronic devices since 2005.
Those attending Family Court facilities in Dover and Georgetown, Justice of the Peace Court 11 in New Castle County, and Justice of the Peace Court 3 and 17 in Georgetown.
If the pilot program goes well, it could be extended to other courthouses, said Sean O’Sullivan, spokesman for the courts.
Under the program, members of the public will not be allowed to take photos or record audio or video in the courthouses, and any phone brought into a courtroom must be turned off or silenced.
Those who bring phones will be allowed to photograph or scan non-confidential court documents or files in the clerks’ offices.
There is no set time on how long the pilot program will run, O’Sullivan said.
None of these courts have jury trials, so the program will not apply to those called for jury service, but if successful could be expanded to them, he said.
The change follows a year-long student by a a Judicial Branch committee headed by Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. and Family Court Chief Judge Michael K. Newell that reviewed the police because phones and electronic devices have an essential tool of daily life for man.
The committee was formed partly because allowing cell phones and tablet computers into state courthouses would “enhance access to justice for those that depend on them for work and family matters and for self-represented litigants.”
“The courts must strike a delicate balance between the needs of security and decorum, and access to justice,” Chief Judge Newell said in the press release. “And with the increased reliance on cell phones in our everyday lives, the time seemed right to revisit our longstanding cell phone policy.
“We are optimistic that this new pilot program to allow the public to bring in cell phones – with
appropriate limits – will prove beneficial to both the public and the courts by making a trip to the courthouse less burdensome while maintaining a level of safety.”
Under the pilot program, if a judicial officer believes there is a cause for concern or a need to maintain security or decorum, he or she may direct that a phone or personal electronic device be temporarily stored in a tear-proof locking pouch. The pouch will prevent use of the device until the proceeding has concluded, at which time a court employee will unlock the pouch.
Failure to follow the court rules, or abide by instructions from court officials, may result in the device being confiscated for the duration of a courthouse visit.
The rules of the program may be adjusted as the pilot program goes on.
The results of the pilot program will help the committee formulate recommendations about whether to expand it to other state court facilities.
Read the full committee report here.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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