From now on, visitors coming to court in Sampson County will need to remove one important item before they enter.
A cell phone ban went into effect Monday at all Sampson County courtrooms — as well as courts in surrounding counties — by administrative order of Chief District Court Judge Paul A. Hardison. Sheriff’s deputies assigned to court security were handed the order first thing Monday morning and immediately began enforcing the new rule.
“Obviously its something new and people aren’t used to it yet, so we’re having to turn many people away right now,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Vernon Huffman, who oversees court services in Sampson. “It’s new and there’s just going to be a learning curve.”
The order prohibits cell phones and any electronic device capable of taking photographs or videos at all district courthouses. In Sampson, that includes the main courthouse, as well as the annex and extension facilities.
Hardison signed the order Friday for all courthouses in the Fourth Judicial District, which encompasses Sampson, Onslow, Jones and Duplin counties. Many North Carolina judges already ban cameras in courtrooms in the presence of jurors. The new mandate came as a surprise across the district, including Sampson, where the ban caused some heartache and inconvenience for those who were unaware of it.
Huffman said court personnel were trying to spread the word as much as they could so devices could be left in cars or at home. which would prevent tardiness for court or another appointment.
“I would dare say 95 percent of the people coming into the building — this is new to them — had to be turned away because they had cell phones,” Huffman noted. “We haven’t had any incidents where we’ve had to seize any cell phones but we’re having to turn them away at the door and tell them to secure them in their vehicles.”
Hardison is not assigned to Sampson this week and was not available for comment, a judicial assistant said. However, the judge explained is his order that a cell phone ban was needed.
“It is necessary to restrict the use of cell phones and other personal communication devices having the capability to take photographs and to record the unauthorized taking of photographs of persons involved in proceedings in court, such as witnesses, jurors and attorneys,” Hardison stated in his order, citing General Rules of Practice for the Superior and District Courts.
The order also indicates that the N.C. Supreme Court has deemed that “certain such devices or similar devices in appearance have the capability to injure or incapacitate; and that it is in the interest of justice, safety and order, that further action be taken to reduce the risk that such devices have become a distraction and interference and may be used in a manner as to endanger others and disrupt court proceedings.”
The order allows cell phones for certain parties, including:
• Individuals who display a current ID card issued by the Sheriff’s Office authorizing entry to the courthouse without passing through security
• Attorneys who display written permission from the chief district court judge to bring a device into the courthouse
• Individuals who have written permission from the chief district court judge as “having a specific need for such a device”
• A federal, state and local law enforcement or probation and parole officer who displays his or her credentials
• An individual who displays a current jury summons
• A judge, commissioner, deputy commissioner or other official of a governmental agency entering the courthouse for the purpose of conducting court or an official hearing, and who displays his or her credentials as such.
“If you are authorized to enter this building without going through the security checkpoint, you are authorized to have your cell phone,” Huffman explained. “Anybody else will have to leave their cell phones in their vehicles. They will not be permitted in the building at all, no matter what you’re coming for, Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The entire business day, your cell phone will be prohibited in the main courthouse.”
At the main courthouse and extension, there are screening areas at the entrances of those buildings. The screening area at the annex is slightly different in that it is located outside the upstairs courtroom
At the annex courtroom, the entrance to which is located outside the Tax Office door, if court is not in session there will be no issues. When court is in session, however, anyone going through the security point will not be allowed to take their cell phones in.
“Regardless of whether they are going to court or the Tax Office, they will not be allowed to pass that security post with any electronic devices while court is in session,” Huffman remarked.
In Sampson County, District Court is held every week, Monday through Thursday. Every other week, that extends through Friday. That means hundreds upon hundreds of people going into that main courthouse every day, on top of those attending court in the other two locations. It also means a lot of cell phones.
Signs will soon be posted explaining the new order to those coming to any of the local courts. Anyone caught violating the order may be held in contempt of court.
“There will be permanent signs stating that no cell phones will be permitted,” said Huffman, noting that such signage will be placed at all three court locations. “We’re working on getting those signs up, and when people get educated to the idea they can’t bring them it won’t be an issue.”
Reach staff writer Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.