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Richmond courthouse will no longer turn away people with cellphones after New York Times story
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Richmond courthouse will no longer turn away people with cellphones after New York Times story

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John Marshall Courthouse

John Marshall Courts building

People with business in Richmond’s district and circuit courthouses will no longer be turned away if they have their cellphones with them.

A recent policy change allows visitors to check their phones with sheriff’s deputies before entering, ending an all-out prohibition that advocates said had become a barrier to justice for people without cars in which to securely store the devices.

“It’s horrible that people would all of a sudden be turned away for carrying an everyday, normal item and miss their court date, which, tragically, happened quite frequently,” said Martin Wegbreit, the director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. “The change is long overdue.”

The old rule and the problems it created were highlighted in an April 7 article in The New York Times about evictions, which focused on Richmond and described people who took the bus to their court date hiding their phones in the bushes outside the building after being told they couldn’t bring them inside — a relatively common sight on busy mornings.

Richmond Sheriff Antionette Irving quietly changed the policy late last month. Deputies will now store the devices in a locked cabinet while visitors conduct business, her spokeswoman, Alexis Carey, said in an email Wednesday.

She did not respond to a question about what prompted the change and, in response to a request to interview Irving, said the sheriff’s first availability to speak to a reporter is in two weeks. The Richmond Times-Dispatch first inquired about the policy a week and a half ago.

The only public notice of the change appears to have come in the form of modifications made to signage in front of the court buildings, where tape was placed over the word “cellphones” on a list of banned items.

Advocates renewed what they described as a long-standing push to address the policy last month after a national study of eviction rates found Richmond has the second-highest in the country.

Wegbreit said many people served with eviction notices weren’t aware they couldn’t bring their phone to the courthouse — the information was not included on the form instructing them to appear in court or on the courthouse website.

The rules governing cellphones in courthouses vary around the state, where it’s up to the chief judge of each court to decide if they’re allowed. More often than not, they are not permitted, though there are exceptions, including Hanover County.

In courthouses where they are banned, it largely appears to be up to the sheriffs who oversee security to decide whether to provide temporary storage.

Chesterfield County began providing lockers for phones over a year ago, said Sheriff Karl Leonard. In Henrico County, deputies had allowed people to bring their cellphones into the building after sealing them in envelopes, but county judges issued an order last year to discontinue the practice, Henrico Sheriff Michael Wade said.

In Henrico County, deputies had allowed people to bring their cellphones into the building after sealing them in envelopes, but county judges issued an order last year to discontinue the practice, Henrico Sheriff Michael Wade said.

“People would take them out of the envelope, and the judges got tired of hearing them,” he said. “We have a lot of people who take the bus, so we’re looking for an alternative.”

Correction: This story initially incorrectly described the policy toward cell phones at the Chesterfield County Courthouse.

noliver@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6178

Twitter: @nedoliver

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