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Can you hear me now? Not in Johnson County courtrooms

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An attorney is standing in the courtroom preparing to make the key argument in his client’s defense when the ringing of a cellphone stops everything.

All eyes in the courtroom turn toward where the noise came from, looking for the cause of the interruption. Johnson County Superior Court 3 Judge Lance Hamner brings the trial to a halt, asking the violator to step before his bench. An unfriendly tone is used to question the person on why a cellphone is being used in the courtroom.

Still, the distraction has occurred. The focus that the attorney built leading into that key point is gone.

Hamner said cellphone use in the courtroom is equal to all other violations of his court rules combined, including wearing saggy pants, shirts with obscene language emblazoned across them or chewing gum.

At least three times a week, judges see people in their courtroom using phones or hear them going off, and the nuisance is becoming a daily problem.

Visitors to any Johnson County courtroom will soon see signs reminding them not to use their cellphone.

With those signs comes a warning: Use a cellphone in the courtroom and a fine or community service could be possible.

While unlikely, jail time also could be an option.

The addition of signs will warn people prior to entering a courtroom of conduct expectations and also gives additional legal backing to hold a person in contempt of court if they break the rule, Johnson Circuit Judge Mark Loyd said.

“I’m confident this problem is not going to resolve itself overnight,” Loyd said. “We need to take a step forward and come up with a dedicated plan.”

Courtroom spectators have been caught using a cellphone during a trial. One defendant even attempted to make a phone call during a trial, Loyd said.

People can bring their cellphone into the courtroom, but they have to be powered down. The rule is not just to limit distractions but is also a safeguard to prohibit any type of recording of trials, a rule of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hamner’s court currently is the only one in Johnson County with a sign listing the rules that are expected to be followed once inside. Because the sign is there, he has little patience with violators.

Hamner brings violators to his bench, citing them with contempt of court. A person’s reaction and future behavior determine if the contempt charge is dropped or escalated into a fine.

Loyd frequently confiscates cellphones, and most are returned after a trial.

The problem is unlikely to completely end anytime soon, but signs can’t hurt the effort.

“I think it will help, but that remains to be seen,” Hamner said. “Amazingly, there is a sign right in front of them that lists the rules, and they don’t read them.”

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