Ottawa and Allegan courts aren’t seeing many visitors these days, with courthouses closed to the public and judges holding hearings through video conferences.


But when they do reopen, a new statewide rule allowing electronic devices in all Michigan courts will be in effect. The rule change, handed down by the Michigan Supreme Court in January, takes effect May 1.


Many Ottawa and Allegan county courtrooms already permitted visitors to keep cellphones and other electronic devices with them in court.


However, the use of cellphones during court proceedings was not allowed in many Ottawa County courtrooms. Signs on the courtroom doors at the 20th Circuit Court instructed people entering to turn off their phones. Phones could be temporarily confiscated if the people in the public gallery disregarded the rule.


Judges also had the ability to impose more restrictive rules for personal device use when necessary. For example, during the murder trial of Juan Cabrera in Ottawa County’s 20th Circuit Court, Judge Karen Miedema required everyone attending to leave their cellphones outside the courtroom.


The new rule takes away some of that judicial discretion, explained 20th Circuit Court administrator Kevin Bowling.


Under the new rules, Michiganders will be able to use their cellphones, laptops and other personal electronic devices in court, provided they are silenced.


But there are still some restrictions on how a person may use his or her personal device.


Recording court proceedings in any form, other than note taking, without the permission of a judge is still prohibited. People may not take photographs, video or audio recordings of anyone in the courthouse without their consent.


Members of the media will still need to request permission in advance to record or broadcast court proceedings.


Judges still have the power to order a person to turn off their device or confiscate the device if the use is disruptive or distracting to the proceedings.


In issuing the new rules, Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack said allowing cellphones and other devices in court would remove barriers for people involved in the legal system.


With cellphones banned entirely from some Michigan courthouses, people who rely on public transportation to travel to and from the courthouse were left with nowhere to store their electronic devices while in court, for example.


“I've always been a person who's not been bothered by use of cellphones in the courtroom,” said 58th District Court Chief Judge Bradley Knoll. “It's the primary way people have of communicating with others in an emergency.”


Bowling said the 20th Circuit Court’s restrictions on cellphone use in the courtroom were created to protect witnesses and jurors, to prevent information from inside the courtroom being shared with sequestered witnesses, and to maintain the decorum of the courtroom.


There isn’t an easy way to address those concerns, Knoll admitted. Deputies are stationed in courtrooms and can watch for any misuse, but some kinds of misuse, such as surreptitious recording or texting testimony to a witness outside the courtroom, are difficult to detect.


Justice Stephen Markman dissented from the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision allowing cellphones and other personal devices in the courtroom, arguing the court should have considered a more moderate approach and not a “one-size-fits-all” order.


“In adopting a rule that allows phones in the courtroom, this Court gives greater regard to a modest increase in personal convenience than to the traditional sanctity of the courtroom and the security of jurors and witnesses,” Markman wrote.


— Contact reporter Carolyn Muyskens at cmuyskens@hollandsentinel.com and follow her on Twitter at @cjmuyskens.