Rich­mond court­houses stop bar­ring peo­ple with cell­phones

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY NED OLIVER

Peo­ple with busi­ness in Rich­mond’s district and cir­cuit court­houses will no longer be turned away if they have their cell­phones with them.

A re­cent pol­icy change al­lows vis­i­tors to check their phones with sher­iff’s deputies be­fore en­ter­ing, end­ing an all­out pro­hi­bi­tion that ad­vo­cates said had be­come a bar­rier to jus­tice for peo­ple with­out cars in which to se­curely store the de­vices.

“It’s hor­ri­ble that peo­ple would all of a sud­den be turned away for car­ry­ing an everyday, nor­mal item and miss their court date, which, trag­i­cally, hap­pened quite fre­quently,” said Martin Weg­breit, the di­rec­tor of lit­i­ga­tion at the Cen­tral Vir­ginia Le­gal Aid So­ci­ety. “The change is long over­due.”

The old rule and the prob­lems it cre­ated were high­lighted in an April 7 ar­ti­cle in The New York Times about

evic­tions, which fo­cused on Rich­mond and de­scribed peo­ple who took the bus to their court date hid­ing their phones in the bushes out­side the build­ing af­ter be­ing told they couldn’t bring them in­side — a rel­a­tively com­mon sight on busy morn­ings.

Rich­mond Sher­iff An­tionette Irv­ing qui­etly changed the pol­icy late last month. Deputies will now store the de­vices in a locked cabi­net while vis­i­tors con­duct busi­ness, her spokes­woman, Alexis Carey, said in an email Wed­nes­day.

She did not re­spond to a ques­tion about what prompted the change and, in re­sponse to a re­quest to in­ter­view Irv­ing, said the sher­iff’s first avail­abil­ity to speak to a re­porter is in two weeks. The Rich­mond TimesDis­patch first in­quired about the pol­icy a week and a half ago.

The only pub­lic no­tice of the change ap­pears to have

come in the form of mod­i­fi­ca­tions made to sig­nage in front of the court build­ings, where tape was placed over the word “cell­phones” on a list of banned items.

Ad­vo­cates re­newed what they de­scribed as a long-stand­ing

push to ad­dress the pol­icy last month af­ter a na­tional study of evic­tion rates found Rich­mond has the sec­ond-high­est in the coun­try.

Weg­breit said many peo­ple served with evic­tion no­tices weren’t aware they couldn’t

bring their phone to the court­house — the in­for­ma­tion was not in­cluded on the form in­struct­ing them to ap­pear in court or on the court­house web­site.

The rules gov­ern­ing cell­phones in court­houses vary around the state, where it’s up to the chief jus­tice of each court to de­cide if they’re al­lowed. More of­ten than not, they are not per­mit­ted, though there are ex­cep­tions, in­clud­ing Hanover County.

In court­houses where they are banned, it largely ap­pears to be up to the sher­iffs who over­see se­cu­rity to de­cide whether to pro­vide tem­po­rary stor­age.

Ch­ester­field County main­tains an all-out ban sim­i­lar to Rich­mond’s old pol­icy. Char­lottesville Cir­cuit Court pro­vides small lock­ers for phones just out­side the se­cu­rity check­point.

In Hen­rico County, deputies had al­lowed peo­ple to bring their cell­phones into the build­ing af­ter seal­ing them in en­velopes, but county judges is­sued an or­der last year to dis­con­tinue the prac­tice, Hen­rico Sher­iff Michael Wade said.

“Peo­ple would take them out of the en­ve­lope, and the judges got tired of hear­ing them,” he said. “We have a lot of peo­ple who take the bus, so we’re look­ing for an al­ter­na­tive.”

NED OLIVER/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Rich­mond’s district and cir­cuit court­houses will now store cell­phones for peo­ple dur­ing vis­its.

Irv­ing

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