Sheriff hangs up on model policy

Published 10:43 pm Friday, December 28, 2018

The Supreme Court of Virginia recently released a model policy that would allow electronic devices in courthouses with certain restrictions, but the Suffolk sheriff said he will not change his policy for Suffolk’s Mills E. Godwin Courts Building.

The Supreme Court of Virginia approved and recommended the model policy on Dec. 5. Under the model policy, devices like mobile phones, tablets and smartwatches could be brought into the courthouse and used in common areas, but could not be brought into or used in courtrooms without authorization of the presiding judge.

Suffolk Sheriff E.C. Harris said his current policy for the courthouse, which prohibits the general public from bringing any electronic devices in the courthouse, will not change.

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“I’m disappointed in the Supreme Court,” Harris said.

Justice is his top concern with the policy, Harris said, and the presence of devices in the courthouse could threaten impartial trials. Harris said he does not have enough manpower to monitor whether devices are being brought into or used in courtrooms once they are inside the courthouse.

“If I’m in a courtroom and there are 50 cell phones, I can’t watch all 50,” he said.

“They can listen to testimony and text or take pictures and send it to other witnesses. Justice needs to be fair to all. That is the most important reason,” Harris added.

The Supreme Court of Virginia recommends its model policy for consideration by Virginia’s circuit courts and district courts, but courts are not required to adopt the policy.

The policy recommendation argues that the use of electronic devices has increased, and the use of these devices has become a necessity for people’s personal and working lives.

“People rely on these devices for purposes ranging from organizational or data storage activities to ensuring personal security,” according to the policy recommendation. “Appropriate use at the courthouse will allow people to access information for presentation to the court, and it will allow people to transact other necessary business.”

People involved in court cases in Suffolk who have evidence they wish to present on their phone have in the past been able to give their phone to a deputy, who personally takes the phone to the judge when it is needed.

The Supreme Court did acknowledge the issues the devices pose in courtrooms. As Harris fears, they can be used inappropriately in courtrooms to communicate with jurors or witnesses, intimidate others or post video or audio on social media, the recommendation states. In addition, weapons can be disguised as devices.

However, the Supreme Courts believes the devices have the ability to help more than they hurt. But Harris believes the bad outweighs the good.

“Someone could take a video of us moving inmates and see how we respond to issues. It’s a bad idea,” Harris said.

The Supreme Court of Virginia suggests storage lockers to be placed in the courthouse if they allow people to bring in their electronic devices, but there is no guarantee that this policy would keep them out of the courtrooms.