April 25, 2013
Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans kept hearing complaints from his judges about street gangs in their courtrooms using cellphones to photograph witnesses.
"They're bold and they're brash," Evans told me the other day. "They think they can do it in court just like the way they do it every day out of court."
So last week, Evans stopped it.
He banned cellphones in all the courts to deal with the problem of gangs using technology as muscle.
"It happened on a regular basis," Evans said. "And we had gone to the sheriff's (Tom Dart's) office to see what they could do about stopping the misuse of these electronic devices. I was told they do not have enough deputies to stop the abuse."
Many visitors — and presumably defendants — complained about the inconvenience of the cellphone ban. But politicians were also upset with Evans.
Dart's political feathers were especially ruffled, and I was told Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle wasn't too happy with Evans, either. Dart provides security. Preckwinkle is the de facto landlord of the court building.
The feuds and competing agendas among the three of them go back years.
But Evans said he didn't worry about that.
"I don't want to wait here in Cook County for that kind of intimidation to occur," Evans said. "We have to stop it now. We want people to feel safe when they come to court, whether they're coming as a witness or a juror or a prospective juror. We don't want them intimidated by some of these people who boldly take their (phone) cameras out and take pictures right in front of the judge, right in front of the judge, right in front of the deputy."
A spokesman for Dart disputed the idea that the sheriff wasn't willing to help Evans with the problem. But he said Dart was concerned with some aspects of the cellphone ban, such as whether the public was given enough notice. Furthermore, the Dart camp complained that Evans didn't personally and formally meet with the sheriff before announcing the policy.
Dart, a Southwest Sider, once flirted with the idea of challenging Rahm Emanuel for the mayoralty. I'm told he's now thinking about running for Illinois attorney general. That post is held by Lisa Madigan, daughter of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, the Boss of Illinois. If she moves up the food chain with her daddy's help, then Dart will try to swim upstream, too.
We contacted Preckwinkle's office and she didn't respond. I've known Preckwinkle since the 1980s, when she and Evans waged titanic battles for Evans' old 4th Ward aldermanic seat.
When Ms. Sensible Shoes doesn't respond to questions about Evans, I'm forced to interpret that as political speak for "I'm in a snit."
Politics and policy make a fine stew everywhere, but especially in Cook County.
The county jail is dangerously overcrowded. Preckwinkle doesn't want to impose additional taxes to pay for an expansion. Dart could relieve overcrowding by putting nonviolent offenders on home-monitor electronic ankle bracelets, but there's a political risk there, too.
If a "nonviolent" offender shoots somebody dead, Dart knows he'll be crucified by reporters. And judges don't want to wear the political jacket for a homicide on home monitoring.
Fair enough. Everyone has agendas. But here's the thing: I give a Moutza to agendas.
Gangs were intimidating the courts. So Evans did his job.
If someone dared whip out a phone in federal court to snap a photo of a witness or juror, make a recording or text testimony to a prospective witness outside the courtroom, that someone would be in the federal lockup in about 30 seconds.
So if federal security can do it, why can't Cook County? That's Dart's responsibility. And it's Preckwinkle's job to provide Dart the funds for court security.
Criminal Court Judge Peggy Chiampas runs a tight courtroom.
"If I hear a phone," said Chiampas, "the phone is mine and they will not get it back. ... People were using their phones in my courtroom to take photographs of themselves pointing down gang signs, of witnesses."
During one weekend bond hearing on a gang-related shooting, an alleged gunman's family was being particularly disruptive.
"Three individuals were taking photographs," she said. "I called them up (to the bench). They were using a female friend's phone, which they do because they're cowards."
She took the phone, scrolled through the photos, saw the gang signs, and took the phone. She also notified Evans.
"There's not a criminal judge who hasn't had a delay or setback because of cellphones in courtrooms," said Cook County Criminal Court Judge Evelyn Clay. "These are murders and armed robberies and rapes, and it's very different from civil courts where you may be talking about money."
She cited the 2008 murder case she presided over of Terrence Ligon, a 34-year-old gangster charged with murder in the shooting of a 4-year-old boy who was caught in gang crossfire.
Three jurors complained that someone snapped cellphone photos as they walked to their car. The news led to a mistrial, then a new trial, and Ligon was ultimately acquitted.
He, in turn, was shot to death in February 2009.
"Now as a result of this," said Clay, "we have another murderer out there."
So some politicians are in a snit. Some court visitors are upset, not being allowed to bring their precious cellphones.
But at least one man did his job.
Judge Tim Evans.
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