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Smartwatches to be banned from courthouse

More electronic devices will be banned from the Mills E. Godwin Jr. Courts Building starting next week, Sheriff E.C. Harris said Thursday.

Cameras and cellphones have long been banned from the courthouse, but with technology advancing all the time, Harris said, he has been compelled to ban all electronic devices from the building — with a special emphasis on smartwatches.

“I’ve got to stay in front of this thing,” Harris said.

He expressed special concern over the new Apple Watch Series 3, which is reported to have the capability to function as the wearer’s cellphone, no matter where the phone itself is located. With current models, the phone has to be fairly close by.

Harris said he couldn’t take the chance that someone sitting in a courtroom during testimony could call a witness sequestered in a witness room and allow that person to hear everything in the courtroom, potentially tainting their upcoming testimony.

“I can’t take a chance on some serious case going down the tubes over a smartwatch,” Harris said.

Smartwatches soon will have video and photo capability, Harris added, presenting more problems.

He said other sheriffs around the country are moving to ban smartwatches over similar concerns.

Harris said all courthouses in Virginia except Portsmouth, Tazewell and Fairfax currently ban smartphones.

The sheriff said folks are still allowed to bring smartphones into the courthouse if there is evidence — photos, for example — on the phone or if they need their phone to monitor a medical condition.

If there’s evidence on the phone, the deputies carry it up to the courtroom separately and only hand it back to the owner when their case is called.

Harris said he wouldn’t mind wearable fitness devices that don’t have any video, photo or phone call capability, but it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference, particularly with 1,000 to 2,000 people per day entering the courthouse.

“I’m trying to not have to have somebody standing there figuring out if this is a smartwatch or a Fitbit,” Harris said. “I hate to send people back to their car, but I don’t know what else to do.”

Harris said he had talked to the judges about his decision. The building, located at 150 N. Main St., houses Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, Suffolk General District Court and Suffolk Circuit Court for the Fifth Judicial District of Virginia.