By Leah Sander
WARSAW — Kosciusko County judges say poor behavior in their courtrooms motivated them to request Kosciusko County Commissioners to institute a new security ordinance for the Kosciusko County Justice Building.
Approved by the commissioners last week, the ordinance generally bans food and drink and “deadly weapons” as defined by Indiana law in the building. It also restricts cellphone use.
Here are the rules as dictated in the ordinance:
“No person, other than law enforcement officers, elected officials, officers of the court, and authorized security personnel for the Justice Building, shall possess within the Justice Building any ‘deadly weapon’ as defined by IC 35-31.5-2-86. IC 35-31.5-2-86, as amended from time to time, is hereby incorporated into and made a part of this Ordinance by reference.
Except as otherwise authorized by one of the Judges and except for law enforcement officers, elected officials, officers of the court, authorized security personnel for the Justice Building, and employees or contractors of the County or the State of Indiana that are conducting official business: no person shall use a device to record audio or video or to take pictures in the Justice Building, except at a public meeting governed by Indiana’s Open Door Law, IC 5-14-1.5, as amended from time to time; and,
no person shall possess or use a mobile phone on the second floor of the Justice Building.
A violation of either (the above parts) of this Ordinance may result in a fine up to, but not more than, $2,500.00 for a first violation and up to, but not more than, $7,500.00 for a second or subsequent violation per IC 36-1-3-8(a)(10)(B).”
Also through the ordinance: “No person shall bring food or drink into the Justice Building, except for persons that work at the Justice Building.
A violation of (that section) of this Ordinance may result in a fine up to $100.00 for a first violation and up to $250.00 for a second or subsequent violation per IC 36-1-3-8(a)(10)(B).”
Kosciusko Circuit Court Judge Mike Reed, Superior Court 1 Judge Karin McGrath and Superior Court 4 Judge Chris Kehler spoke in an interview regarding the ordinance on Tuesday, Aug. 22.
“People do not behave, and people do not follow the rules,” summarized Reed. “The problem gets bigger every year … It’s a reflection of society. People don’t think the rules apply to them.”
“It’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, right? Everybody’s going to suffer because we don’t have time and the resources to deal with all of the problems that arise from people having cellphones in here,” he said.
“There’s no legitimate reason for 95% of the people to have cellphones in the courts,” Reed continued. “People are on Facebook; they do games. They take pictures of the jurors. They broadcast the proceedings.”
He mentioned in 2022, Kosciusko County Bailiff Mike Speigle “literally confiscated and wiped five phones because people were broadcasting court proceedings.”
“Every day or weekly, people get removed from the courtroom who disrupt the proceedings, A, because their phones go off or whatever, or B, they’re taking pictures. They’re recording,” said Reed. “They’re doing all kinds of stuff, so we have to have our people kick them out of court and disrupt the proceedings while that goes on.”
“There was a situation just within the last couple of weeks. A lawyer was talking to people … before court proceedings started. We found out afterwards (someone supporting the other side) was recording his conversation,” said Kehler.
“The worst one (was) … a guy who had a warrant out for his arrest, couldn’t come to his custody hearing. So he had one of his friends go ahead and record it all, so he would know what was going on,” said Reed.
Kehler noted some other counties in Indiana have already put more restrictive cellphone rules in place.
“As a lawyer, I was turned away repeatedly (in other counties).” he said.
InkFreeNews checked with the six counties surrounding Kosciusko regarding possession of cellphones by the general public in the buildings where court occurs.
Marshall, Noble and Wabash counties ban them. Whitley County does as well, with an exception for lawyers. Other exceptions in Whitley County consist of allowing people to bring their cellphones with them when they are voting in the courthouse and jurors and prospective jurors bringing their cellphones with them when they enter the courthouse, but leaving the devices with courthouse staff when court proceedings are going on.
Fulton County asks people to keep their phones off and put away when they are in Circuit Court, with a sign outside Superior Court stating phones aren’t allowed.
Elkhart County, which currently has two locations where court occurs, allows phones “except where restricted by individual courts as determined by the presiding Judicial Officer.” Signs outside those certain courtrooms let people know of the rules.
The Kosciusko County judges said they’ve been working with the commissioners for quite some time to create the ordinance.
“We have a good relationship with the commissioners and we appreciate everything they’ve done, for sure,” said Kehler.
Reed added the commissioners wanted exceptions, like the one allowing phones on the first floor.
In response to a question regarding why the ordinance didn’t just restrict cellphones in the courtroom, Reed said that was over concerns that “once they’re in here, whoever has them, they end up in the courtroom.”
“And we’ve tried banning them from the courtroom. People don’t follow the rules,” he said.
Kehler also said court security was also better able to enforce the cellphone rules if the devices were kept to the first floor.
Judges did note the ordinance allows people to ask for exceptions for recording video or taking pictures on the first floor, such as if they wanted pictures of them applying for their marriage license.
As for the food and drink prohibition, judges also said that had been a problem.
“It’s not a dining room, for gosh sake,” said Reed.
McGrath mentioned there had been issues with spills and also cited concerns people could be hiding things like battery acid in cups.
“I saw a lady bring in a 2-liter of Coke one day,” she said.
Judges plan to work with commissioners to iron out some fine details in the ordinance.
“We anticipate getting together to put a little more guidance to how (a cellphone) exception would work … and I think we’re going to put some more guidance together on what employees … can do, which is probably going to be more restrictive,” said Reed.
There are several signs outside the justice building and on the second floor informing people of the rules. Courthouse security is also telling people about them.
McGrath added “the whole focus of this ordinance is not to inconvenience the community, to upset people, to trample on any kind of personal right.”
“It’s to ensure that this building is as safe as it possibly can be, and that’s for us, our employees and for the public who come in here all the time,” said McGrath. “We do not want Kosciusko County to be the next (place) with a courthouse tragedy.”
“And you shouldn’t be placed in danger for fulfilling your public obligation,” said Reed, referring to people taking pictures of jurors and the like.