The shrub was ringing.
Deep in the scraggly hedge on the west side of Metropolitan Court came the faint sound of jingling and buzzing from a clamshell cellphone.
Such cellular devices were not unusual finds in the foliage around Fourth and Lomas NW when the Downtown courthouse first opened its doors in 2004.
About $83 million had been spent on this spacious, swanky building replete with Italian marble floors and gold-colored elevators. But from the start – and to this day – cellphones, pagers, PDAs, cameras and camera-capable equipment were verboten.
Pagers and PDAs. That’s how old this ban is.
And that’s how long I’ve complained about it.
Vendors and others outside the courthouse back then made extra money by holding the phones for desperate citizens who didn’t trust the shrubs as safe havens to stash their electronics.
Eventually, Metro Court made a small concession to its inconvenient technology taboo by installing lockers at the front of the courthouse where cellphones and the occasional archaic pager could be stored for free.
The shrubs, for the most part, stopped ringing, and the vendors went back to selling hot dogs and chips.
It was a good thing – though not as good as eradicating the ban.
But all good things come to an end. Come July 1, Metro Court is getting rid of the lockers – but not the ban.
“The upkeep and maintenance of the lockers has become cost prohibitive, and the court is no longer able to provide this free service to court patrons,” Chief Judge Sandra Engel said.
Metro Court spokeswoman Camille Baca said that in the past five years, it has cost the court more than $22,000 to replace damaged units and to re-key the lockers multiple times when the keys disappear.
“The lockers were re-keyed most recently last July, and more than half are now inoperable due to missing keys or damage done,” Baca said. “Maintenance of the lockers also pulls from the court’s security resources, as officers are charged with clearing the units out each night and having to log, store and sign out items left behind.”
Metro Court is the only building in the Downtown courthouse district to offer courtesy lockers, she said. But that hasn’t stopped visitors to the nearby District Attorney’s Office, the federal and county courthouses – all with cellphone bans – or homeless folks with no apparent court business to conduct from using the lockers. That’s often left no lockers for Metro Court patrons.
So why the ban in the first place? A little history.
In 2004, when Metro Court was shiny and new and locked down as tightly as Area 51, then-Metro Court Chief Judge Judith Nakamura and a 16-member security committee concocted the policy, saying that “cellular technology” could allow anybody to take photos of security arrangements within the court and transmit those images to their accomplices outside.
Then-court administrator Marc Saavedra warned that cellphone cameras, which were not as prevalent as they are today, could take photos of jurors or judges.
In 2013, Nakamura was appointed a state district judge and moved across the street to the Bernalillo County Courthouse. Soon afterward, that court also implemented a ban on cellphones. Nakamura told me then that she was asked how the ban had worked at Metro and she said it worked well.
Well, not for people who have no car, no convenient drop box or accommodating attorney’s office nearby.
A cellphone ban disproportionately affects those with less means, many of whom find themselves at Metro Court to pay traffic tickets or fight misdemeanors. It penalizes the many instead of the guilty few.
And don’t tell me bailiffs can’t handle a few cellphone scofflaws. I once had an eagle-eyed bailiff thrust a box of tissue in my face because she mistook a slight quiver of my jaw as proof I was chewing gum. These folks don’t play.
It’s been 15 years since Metro Court’s ban went into effect, and cellphones have become even more a part of us than then. They are repositories for our most important information. They are our links to the world outside the courtroom doors. They are our lifelines to a sick child, an elderly parent, an attorney, a probation officer, an employer, a ride home. They help translate language, display a photo as evidence, provide information on which courtroom our case is in or which law applies to our case.
I asked Baca whether Metro Court officials had a suggestion for the folks who will again have no place to safely store their cellphones.
“The alternative that people have is to familiarize themselves with the court’s security rules, which can be found on our website at metro.nmcourts.gov/security-rules.aspx and to not bring prohibited items with them to court, including cellphones,” she said.
You can look up those rules on your cellphone.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.