Ban coming on electronic devices in Lee Courthouse

Measure takes effect Jan. 1
Dec. 14, 2012 @ 05:02 AM

Come next year, people in Lee County will no longer be able to bring cell phones, cameras or any other electronic devices into the Lee County Courthouse.

Starting Jan. 1, anyone carrying an electronic device will be turned away at the door, said Randall Butler, chief deputy with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. An officer operates a metal detector and X-ray scanner at the door, which Butler said should catch most, if not all electronics.

If people somehow sneak electronics inside, he said, they would most likely be charged with contempt of court, which carries a punishment of any combination of censure, up to 30 days in jail or a fine of up to $500.

The ban stems from safety concerns, specifically over guns and tasers that look like cell phones, as well as calculators that can conceal knives. There have been no incidents involving such weapons at the courthouse, but Butler said simply learning about them led Sheriff Tracy Carter to ask Superior Court Judge C. Winston Gilchrist, who serves Lee and Harnett counties, to institute the ban.

On Thursday, the judge gave Carter the authority to prohibit any items he feels could pose a risk. Butler said the Sheriff’s Office, as a precaution, will ban all electronics from the building as a better-safe-than-sorry measure.

“We haven’t caught anybody with these weird devices, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there in the courtroom before,” he said.

According to UNC-Chapel Hill professor Cathy Packer, faculty director of the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy, a Sheriff’s Office having control over such matters is rare in North Carolina, and an all-out ban on recording devices and other electronics would raise serious accountability questions.

“This clearly would be a major blow to government transparency in Sanford,” she wrote in an email Thursday.

However, Butler said there’s a good chance media could get around the ban as long as members of the press approach the Sheriff’s Office with a request to bring cameras or other electronics into court ahead of time. But because each request is reviewed separately, he said, there’s no guarantee.

The ban won’t apply to courthouse employees or people there in an official capacity, such as attorneys, bailiffs or judges, Butler said, adding that as for members of the general public who have a proven need for some sort of electronic device, he couldn’t imagine them being turned down as long as they submit to a review ahead of time.

Moore County has a similar ban, as do several other Superior Court districts around the state. Of the state’s three federal court districts, the local Middle District is the strictest, banning anyone from carrying anything that can record audio or photos in all but extreme and pre-approved situations.

Locally, Carter does have the authority to carry out the ban because of Gilchrist’s order delegating him that power, although it’s unclear if the plan to apply the ban throughout the entire three-story courthouse complex — which includes offices for the clerk of court, county clerk and district attorney, as well as four courtrooms — would hold up under scrutiny. The state’s judicial rules give judges the power to ban items from the “courtroom or the corridors immediately adjacent,” without specifically defining those parameters.

Butler said law enforcement wants a building-wide ban because it would be easier to control and could held prevent violence in all situations.

“Just because they’re only going to the clerk’s office doesn’t mean they’re not going to get upset,” he said.