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Proposal would allow phones into federal courthouses

BISMARCK - People carry their mobile phones into churches, libraries and nearly everywhere else these days, but federal courthouses in North Dakota have always been a no-cell zone - just ask anyone who's been told by security to walk their phone ...

BISMARCK – People carry their mobile phones into churches, libraries and nearly everywhere else these days, but federal courthouses in North Dakota have always been a no-cell zone – just ask anyone who’s been told by security to walk their phone back to their car on a subzero day.

That could soon change under proposed rules that would allow smartphones, tablets and other wireless communication devices in North Dakota’s four federal courthouses in Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks and Minot.

Current rules allow laptop computers in all areas of the courthouses, including courtrooms, as long as they’re rendered silent before entering.

However, for security reasons, smartphones and other wireless communications devices are banned, except for courthouse employees, law enforcement officers and attorneys and their staff.

At the William L. Guy Federal Building in Bismarck, the U.S. Post Office space lacks a public restroom, forcing people to ditch their phones before using the courthouse-side restroom, said Rob Ansley, clerk of court for the U.S. District Court of North Dakota.  

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“It’s really inconvenient for the public,” he said.

Under the new rules, wireless devices still couldn’t be used “to photograph, record, televise, or otherwise transmit any images or sounds in a courtroom, judge’s chambers, jury room, or corridor of the building on the floor on which a courtroom or jury room is located,” as the current rule states.

People also couldn’t talk on their phones in the courtroom without the judge’s permission when court is in session.

The U.S. Marshals Service and courthouse security officers could still inspect devices at any time and exclude or confiscate any device they believe to violate the rule.

Friday is the deadline for public comment on the rules. Ansley said he hadn’t received any so far.

North Dakota’s federal judges have already signed off on the rules, which will take effect Jan. 1 if approved by the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Ansley said he doesn’t expect any pushback from the appeals court, which already allows wireless devices in St. Paul and St. Louis.

“It’s just a natural progression. At this point in time, people use their phones a lot differently than they did just a few years ago,” he said.

Signs will be placed outside of the courtrooms reminding people of the ban on recording and to silence their devices, he said.

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State recordings

Meanwhile, North Dakota broadcasters and newspapers are opposing a change to state rules that would restrict public access to audio recordings of district court proceedings.

The 13-member Court Services Administration Committee chaired by Supreme Court Justice Daniel Crothers voted for the change in September, based on a Minnesota rule that allows audio recordings to be disseminated only by transcript.

The workgroup that proposed the change reasoned that the recordings may contain confidential information such as Social Security numbers and financial account numbers, as well as extraneous conversations -- including those that may be subject to attorney-client privilege when a microphone is inadvertently left on.

About 90 requests for copies of audio recordings were made within the past year, many from parties to the proceedings but some who weren’t associated, according to an Oct. 1 letter from Crothers to Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle.

Wednesday was the deadline for commenting on the change.

Bismarck attorney Jack McDonald, who represents the North Dakota Newspaper Association and North Dakota Broadcasters Association, wrote in submitted comments that both groups object to closing a record that has been open at least since the mid-1990s.

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Everything said and recorded in a public court proceeding “most likely was heard not only by the parties and attorneys, but also by other persons present in the courtroom,” McDonald noted.

The groups suggest fine-tuning the rules to address specific concerns rather than banning access altogether, McDonald wrote.

 

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