Houston & Peach

Portable electronics banned from Houston County Courthouse

PERRY -- It was the last straw for Houston County sheriff’s Lt. Tommy Spires when a man complained about not being able to take an MP3 player into a courtroom.

All portable electronic devices are now banned from the Houston County Courthouse in Perry, with exceptions for elected officials, courthouse employees, attorneys and the media.

“It had just gotten out of hand,” said Spires, who is in charge of courthouse security.

He’d already had an earful of complaints about noise generated from the use of the devices, especially cellphones, and of rude behavior from some users when interacting with courthouse employees.

And his staff of sheriff’s deputies constantly had to police the public from sneaking cellphones into the courtroom.

Added to the concerns about today’s world of terrorism and violence is the ability to manufacture guns that look like cellphones or detonate bombs from cellphones. Spires said the ban was long overdue.

Signs announcing the ban went up May 18, he said.

Cellphones have long been prohibited in courtrooms, but the ban now extends to the entire building, which houses other county offices where people may go to buy vehicle tags, file divorce papers or obtain a copy of birth or death certificates.

Other courthouse offices such as the Superior Court Clerk’s Office and the Tax Assessor’s Office previously prohibited cellphone use, Spires said.

James Moore, the county’s chief property tax appraiser, said the prohibition was already in place in his office before he became chief appraiser three years ago.

He said most people have been respectful of the prohibition.

Policies governing electronic devices in other midstate courthouses vary.

The Bibb County Courthouse has no posted prohibition on cellphones or other portable electronics. However, cellphones and presumably another devices are required to be turned off in the courtroom. Courthouse personnel, attorneys and the media may use laptops and other portable devices in the courtroom.

Courthouses in Peach, Monroe and Jones counties have no bans but restrict the public from cellphone use in the courtrooms. But all electronic devices are banned at the Crawford County Courthouse.

Federal court in Macon for years banned the public from using any portable electronic devices but recently made an exception for the media for news gathering purposes.

PUBLIC REACTION

The new Houston County policy received mixed reviews from folks at the courthouse last week.

“I don’t like it,” said Ervin Heath of Warner Robins, who came to the courthouse on his lunch break to file some paperwork. “I got to take (my cellphone) back out to the vehicle now, and then I got to come back, and I’m in a hurry.”

Heath, who works in the heating and air conditioning industry, said he also didn’t like the possibility of missing a call from his employer about a job.

He thinks the public should be able to keep their cellphones on them but just be asked to put them on vibrate mode or turn them off, if required.

Marjorie Harman of Texas said she was at the courthouse taking care of personal businesses.

“I don’t care either way,” said Harman, who didn’t mind taking her phone back to her vehicle. “I’ve never been in a courthouse before, so I don’t know if this was normal or not.”

Irma Melendrez, who was picking up copies of a marriage certificate, said she understands the need for the policy in today’s world.

“You can activate a bomb from a cellphone,” she said.

Dexter Owens and Markisha Strobridge, who are engaged, had opposing viewpoints. Owens favored the policy to avoid courtroom disruptions.

“I think it’s actually an inconvenience because I think most people know. They have general courtesy and etiquette about their phone,” Strobridge said.

“They know how to turn their devices off when they enter into a courtroom. ... No guns and weapons, I understand.”

Writer Amy Leigh Womack contributed to this report. To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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