Cellphones in courtrooms

Seen in this Tuesday photo is a sign inside the 35th Circuit Court house that forbids cellphone use inside the building.

LANSING — Michigan’s Supreme Court ruled earlier this month, 6-1, that courts must allow the public to bring cellphones, tablets and laptops into all courthouses in the state, and must implement the changes by May 1.

Some exceptions still apply, however. Phones must be placed in silent mode while inside a court room, and individuals still must fill out a consent form to record audio, take photos or take video, similar to what reporters are required to do.

Outside courtrooms, individuals cannot “photograph, record, broadcast or live stream an individual without that individual’s prior consent,” or “any juror or anyone called to the court for jury service.” Judges are given discretion to impose fines or other sanctions upon anyone who violates these rules.

“We are rule followers, and if the Supreme Court says we have to let the public bring their phone in, then we’re going to follow the rules,” 35th Circuit Court Judge Matthew Stewart said.

He added that he and his staff soon will meet with 66th District Court judges and their staffs, along with other officials, and will decide how to implement the rules.

Also according to the court ruling, the public will be allowed to photograph documents with their devices, as long as “the device leaves no mark or impression on the document and does not interfere with the operation of the clerk’s office.”

Shiawassee County Clerk Caroline Wilson said Tuesday that she has emailed several other clerks, and most were surprised by the move. Wilson added her main concern is when files are accessed, personal information such as Social Security numbers would be part of public records by default, and accessible to anyone.

“I see both sides,” Wilson said. “But there are reasons that social media can be problematic, as people experience or recordings and not being aware of what is necessarily happening. When you have that device in a public forum of the court room, there’s other people to consider. There are jurors to consider, there are other people present.

“For the documents, we don’t know who’s around. We redact after a request because we have to follow the rules, and there’s information not pertinent to the public. I was shocked that it passed. As far as other county clerks, we were disappointed. Our job is to protect the integrity of the files, the people who have access to those records, and the management of those files,” she said.

Wilson also said revenue the county or courts derive from the copying of records is not a factor and results in negligible amounts. The county and courts currently charge $1 per page to make copies. Logistically, Wilson said digitizing records would be cost prohibitive, and she does not have an adequate staff to put in the hours necessary to do so.

Shiawassee County Public Defender’s Office head Doug Corwin said he’s supportive of the ruling, and it’s a step forward for the public to have access to court files, but he’s apprehensive that decorum in the court room could suffer.

“My only reservation is that people are going to forget to turn their phones on silent and observe the rules inside the court room,” Corwin added.

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