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Tension between courthouse access and security

security_2_mainCourthouse security is cracking down across Virginia.

Despite calls for relaxed cellphone policies in Virginia courthouses, many sheriffs are still reluctant to allow visitors to bring their phones past the security desk. In some locations, lawyers are facing stricter security hurdles as they enter the courthouse.

“Allowing cellphones into the courthouse is a double-edged issue,” said Nathan Hall, court management consultant for the National Center for State Courts.

Hall said the debate to permit cellphones into the courthouse is a battle between “access and fairness issues” and security matters. There are many risks to allowing cellphones into the courthouse, including its use as a recording device and easily leaking court information to social media sites.

The reality is that cellphones are an integral part of people’s lives. According to the Pew Research Center, 96% of Americans now own a cellphone of some kind.

In December 2018, the Supreme Court of Virginia released a model policy recommending that local judges and sheriffs generally allow visitors to bring cellphones and other personal devices into state courthouses. The policy addresses concerns that cellphones are part of everyday business and personal security for many people.

“People rely on these devices for purposes ranging from organization or data storage activities to ensuring personal security,” states the model policy.

The high court’s proposed policy would allow visitors to bring electronic devices into common areas of a courthouse, possibly subject to additional restrictions. The policy points to the daily reliance people have on their mobile devices, while simultaneously acknowledging the safety threats they could impose.

“Policies barring portable electronic devices may prevent self-represented litigants or other court users from effectively presenting evidence in their cases, successfully accessing court resources or information, or communicating with others while in the courthouse,” the policy reads.

Few courts have been swayed by the suggested policy. Cellphones already are banned from the Salem courthouse, and that rule is unlikely to change. If anything, Salem’s security measures will continue to increase. Effective Aug. 1, 2019, attorneys must pass through metal detectors with the general public, abandoning the previous routine of guards waving familiar lawyers past the security checkpoint.

This policy change was announced as a “proactive measure” by Salem Sheriff April Staton in a press release last month.

“While random acts of violence occur with greater frequency all across our country, these challenges present us with an opportunity to either be proactive or reactive in how we might perceive and respond to similar events in the City of Salem,” Staton wrote.

Salem is not alone in increasing security measures. Previously, attorneys and clergy members were able to enter the Norfolk courthouse by showing their credentials and passing through the magnetometer. But as of July 1, all visitors to the courthouse must also be hand-wanded upon entry, said Lt. Colonel Angela Bennett.

Bennett said the policy changed in light of the shootings at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center on May 31, when a city employee shot and killed 12 people.

The Virginia Beach courthouse also has plans to increase security measures. Effective Aug. 12, attorneys will be required to pass through metal detectors before entering the courthouse.

“We understand the need to make sure that our city buildings are secure, and we’re working every day to find shortcomings and weaknesses that can increase our security,” said Chief Deputy Rocky Holcomb.

Holcomb said this decision was not influenced by the shooting in May; plans to increase courthouse security have been in effect since last year. On Oct. 1, 2018, the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office began conducting random security screenings of all normally “exempt personnel” entering the courthouse, including attorneys, court reporters and volunteers.

This too was a “proactive measure,” Holcomb added.

The allowance of cellphones into courthouses varies throughout the state. Some cities – including Salem, Norfolk and Virginia Beach – provide storage facilities for cellphones while people are in court. Bennett, the Norfolk sheriff, said clients that need their cellphones for a “particular case” can retrieve necessary devices from storage upon approval from the judge.

Other courthouses ban electronic devices from entering the building altogether.

Until April 2018, cellphones were banned from Richmond district and circuit courthouses. But a policy change last year now allows visitors to check their cellphones with sheriff’s deputies upon entry.

The policy update, implemented by Richmond Sheriff Antionette Irving, came quietly. The only public notice of the change was seen on signage in front of court buildings, where tape was placed over the word “cellphones” on a list of banned items.

Irving did not respond to a request for comment.

Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, said banning cellphones from courthouses violates due process because it prohibits litigants from presenting evidence on their phones, including texts, photos and videos.

“Our legal system, our court system, was designed by lawyers, for lawyers. It wasn’t designed for people without lawyers,” Wegbreit said. “If you’re a lawyer, you can bring in whatever you need. If you’re not a lawyer, you might be able to figure out how to do that, but you’re given no guidance at all.”

Wegbreit said he often saw people who walked or took the bus to their court date hiding cellphones in bushes outside the building after being told they couldn’t bring them inside.

To Wegbreit, the Fairfax County courthouse maintains the “golden standard” on cellphone policies. Cellphones and select devices are allowed into the courthouses, including computers, electronic calendars and e-book readers. However, all devices must be on silent inside courtrooms, said Fairfax Sheriff’s Lt. Derrick Ledford.

“I think the benefit of us allowing [cellphones] is not being liable for the individual’s phone when they come in,” Ledford said.

Since changing the policy to allow cellphones in the courthouse in December 2012, Ledford said security “hasn’t had a huge issue with electronic devices.”

Fairfax County is also a little more lax on attorneys entering the courthouse. By completing an application process and undergoing a background check, attorneys can be issued an ID card to bypass courthouse security. The cards are only issued after confirming the applicant is in good standing with the Virginia State Bar.

However, Hall maintains that “universal screening” is an ideal security measure for courthouses to follow to reduce risk safety concerns.

“We don’t disbelieve anybody when they say they don’t have a security threat… But the data shows that’s not always true,” Hall said.

He added courthouses today are more secure than ever before, but the NCSC still sees “several violent instances that occur” every month.

Staton, the Salem sheriff, anticipates counties across Virginia will start adopting security measures similar to her own.

“Things are changing. People are changing. In our world of public safety, it’s better to be ahead of the game than to in hindsight wish you had made changes sooner,” Staton said.