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Cell phone use barred near county courtrooms

| Friday, Nov. 30, 2007, 12:00 p.m.

Allegheny County criminal court judges have banned the use of cell phones and other electronic devices on the floors of the courthouse where criminal cases are heard.

All 14 criminal court judges signed the order, which was made public Thursday and applies to all courthouse workers and visitors, including attorneys and the media. The ban takes effect Monday and leaves small areas on those floors for the use of electronic devices.

The use of cameras and phones inside courtrooms already is banned, although several states allow cameras inside their courtrooms.

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said witness protection was the main factor in the decision.

"There's a constant intimidation of witnesses using recording devices," Manning said. "I used to be of the opinion that if a member of the public walked by and looked in the courtroom, the media should be able to do the same. But the misdeeds of a number of people have put the system in serious jeopardy."

Manning said judges wanted to prevent would-be intimidators from snapping photos of witnesses for distribution in the community. He cited a law that bans electronic devices near the entrances and exits of courtrooms.

Ray Billotte, district court administrator, said he consulted with the sheriff's office in constructing the ban and decided a prohibition that applied to everyone would be the most efficient.

"We tried to strike a balance and at the same time protect the integrity of the proceedings," Billotte said.

Sheriff's deputies said warnings likely would be issued first, then offenders could have their devices confiscated. To get them back, offenders would have to petition a judge, according to the court order.

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