Starting this past Monday, people with business in the Harford County Courthouse are no longer sent back to their cars if they're carrying cell phones.
The restriction against cell phones in the courthouse was lifted this week, more than two years after it had been lifted at every other courthouse and district court operation in the state.
Prior to Monday, the Harford County Courthouse security staff had been under orders by Judge William O. Carr not to allow electronic devices such as cell phones, portable computers or computer tablets in the building.
Across Bond Street at the Maryland District Court operation on the first floor of the Mary E.W. Risteau State Office building, however, cell phones have been allowed into the strictly regulated court area of the building since Jan. 1, 2011, when what is known as Maryland Rule 16-110 went into effect statewide.
A general prohibition against phones that had been in effect prior to January 2011 statewide remained in effect in the Harford County Circuit Court until questions about whether Rule 16-110 applied in Bel Air were raised earlier this year to the Maryland Administrative Office of the Courts.
Judge Carr was out of the office until Monday when the restriction was lifted.
"Judge Carr did not realize his ruling was at odds with the court of appeals rulings," Terri Bolling, spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said Wednesday.
Asked this week about the delay in allowing cell phones in the courthouse under Rule 16-110, Judge Carr said: "It got by us."
He went on to explain the Harford County Courthouse security staff and judiciary became very sensitized to the presence of cell phones about three years ago – or about a year before the rule went into effect.
During the trial of an accused gang member, the judge explained, an associate had sneaked a cell phone into the courtroom and had dialed another associate at the Harford County Detention Center. Essentially, Carr said, the sequestered proceedings of the trial were being broadcast live. In addition to concerns about testimony changing, there also were concerns about witnesses being identified for possible retribution, and photos of jurors being taken for purposes of intimidation.
At the courthouse in Bel Air, prominent signs that had noted the prohibition against cell phones and other electronic devices had been taken down as of this week and courthouse security officers were well aware of the change in policy.
Under Rule 16-110, "...a person may (A) bring an electronic device into a court facility and (B) use the electronic device for the purpose of sending and receiving phone calls and electronic messages for any other lawful purpose not otherwise prohibited."
Devices are not allowed to be used for recording court proceedings or in any manner that interferes with court proceedings or the work of courthouse staff, according Rule 16-110. The rule cites the specific example of loud conversations that disrupt courthouse staff as being prohibited.
Furthermore, the rule's text says a judge may prohibit possession of a cell phone or other electronic device in specific areas for specific reasons, but the court is obliged to provide a designated storage area.
Devices must be turned off inside courtrooms during official proceedings and may not be used by jurors in the deliberation room, according to a summary of Rule 16-110 posted on the Administrative Office of the Courts web site.
Carr noted this week that courthouse security staff and other officers of the court will have to be especially vigilant in making sure cell phones are turned off in courtrooms and other places where they're not permitted to be used.
Though it will mean more vigilance, he said: "We'll manage."
Patrick Lovett, of Bel Air, began asking questions about the cell phone issue earlier this year, as he expressed in a letter to The Aegis sent April 2.
Lovett wrote: "This past February, The Aegis printed a letter from a woman juror who got trapped in the juror parking lot elevator and spent a considerable amount of time before being rescued. She was unable to summon help because of the prohibition on carrying cell phones into the Harford County courthouse. I've looked into this and found that cell phones and other electronic devices are allowed into MD courthouses, with certain guidelines. I've asked various elected officials and have been told that it's Chief Judge William Carr's personal edict that prevents Harford County citizens from carrying their phones and electronic devices into the courthouse."
The letter Lovett cites was published Feb. 1 was from Nellie W. Vaught, of Abingdon, who wrote to thank the people who rescued her when she was stuck in an elevator in the Bel Air Parking Garage on Jan. 24 when she had been called for jury duty and ordered to leave her phone in her car.
Vaught wrote, in part: "It was one of the coldest days of this year. We were dismissed at noon and I headed to the parking garage and my car on the sixth floor. I got on the elevator alone, against my better judgment. After passing the fifth floor the elevator abruptly stopped with a jolt. My first thought was panic but I chose to assess the situation and I realized there was an alarm button and a telephone button."
The emergency phone in the elevator was faulty, though eventually Vaught was able to contact someone and members of Bel Air Volunteer Fire Co. were dispatched to free her.
Lovett, distressed by the letter, said in a phone conversation that he had mailed formal letters to Judge Carr as well as Judge Robert M. Bell, the state's chief judge at the time, asking why cell phones were permitted in other court operations in Maryland, but not in Bel Air. He waited several weeks and when he got no reply, he sent copies of his letters to Car and Bell, along with his letter, to The Aegis.
When the Administrative Office of the Courts was asked by The Aegis about whether local lead judges had discretion to ban phones in courthouses, staff there said the issue would be checked, but that Rule 16-110 was clear in allowing cell phones in court facilities, with some restrictions. Judge Carr, who is the administrative or lead judge in Harford County, was out of the office that week. Upon his return to work this past Monday, the Bel Air restriction was lifted.