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To crack down on witness intimidation, Philly courts to ban phones

Sealing phone-pouch technology designed for concerts will get use in Philly courts.
Philly criminal court will ban cellphones April 3 and require users to put phones in Provided

The witness, a young man, seemed nervous while testifying in the murder case. When asked whether anyone had threatened him about taking the stand, he shocked the courtroom by pointing into the audience and saying, “That’s one of them right there.”

The man he pointed at quickly stood and left the courtroom, followed by court officers who arrested and charged him with witness intimidation.

To prevent such scenes from happening in the future, authorities are banning cell phones from the city's packed Criminal Justice Center. The ban takes effect on April 3.

“The proliferation of mobile devices throughout society has given rise to safety and security concerns in our courtrooms,” said Administrative Judge Jacqueline F. Allen.

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Courts will be using “Yondr,” magnetically sealing cell phone pouches, which Allen said would “address a 21stcentury problem with a 21stcentury solution.”

Yondr pouches were designed specifically to create cellphone-free events for musicians or performers. But Philly courts will be using them to prevent visitors from photographing sensitive materials or transmit any confidential information.

Members of the public will be required to place their cellphones in a Yondr pouch as they enter court. The pouches automatically seal once inside, and unseal as the person leaves the courtroom.

“Members of the public will keep their pouch-covered device with them, but will be unable to access it for purposes of taking photos or videos, sending text messages, or placing/receiving phone calls,” a First Judicial District of Pennsylvania news release explained.

The move comes after years of a rampant anti-snitching culture of witness intimidation in Philadelphia.

In 2014, police discovered the Instagram account @rats215, which had outed more than 30 witnesses to various murders by posting images online of confidential court documents which had somehow been leaked. The account was shut down, but the operator of the account was never identified or charged.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office supports the adoption of Yondr pouches.

“Any effort to reduce witness intimidation and improve courtroom security in theCJCis something the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office supports,” D.A. Seth Williams said.

Yondr pouches are designed to “create phone-free events and spaces,” the company states.

While court officials wary of witness intimidation long called for a ban on cell phones in court, the logistics of storing visitors’ phones at the courthouse entrance long stymied those plans. Yondr pouches eliminate that problem by requiring the visitor to carry their own phone.

“The new pouch is a functional, simple solution that eliminates the need to collect and store phones of all those entering the courthouse,” said Municipal Court President Judge Marsha H. Neifield.

Exempt from the rules will be lawyers, judges, jurors, social workers, law enforcement officers and members of the news media.

It remains to be seen how visitors to court accustomed to having easy access to their cellphones will respond to the new rules.

“While we realize there may be some concerns about the new restrictions, we believe we have found a realistic way to increase safety in our courthouse without placing too much of a burden on the people we serve," said Court of Common Pleas President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper.

The cost of the program to the city has not been made public.

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