Some find ways to defeat Phila. court’s new locking cellphone pouch

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Philadelphia court officials this week learned a key difference between people coming into the Criminal Justice Center and those attending a Dave Chappelle show.

Unlike Chappelle’s fans, who willingly turn off their cellphones and put them into a locked “Yondr” pouch during his performance, some locals are resisting doing the same while they’re inside the courthouse at 13th and Filbert Streets.

Specifically, about 20 to 30 people decided their need for their cellphone was so great that they mutilated or otherwise destroyed the pouch to retrieve the phone without visiting an official unlocking station.

“We have discovered that people can be very ingenious trying to find ways around the system,” said Philadelphia Court Administrator Joseph H. Evers.

Still, Evers and Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams, whose deputies handle security at the courthouse, say they are pleased with the results of the first five days of the program.

“It’s gone pretty good so far,” said Williams. “We’re still working out some kinks.”

Evers and Williams declined to say exactly what people did, but during the week courthouse employees talked about Yondr pouches hacked open and left in trash cans, and one that was taken outside and set ablaze. Some people reportedly found out how to power up their phones by touch and asked Siri to do the rest.

Williams noted that the destroyed units were just a fraction of the 3,500 cellphone bags distributed each day.

Officials announced the program last month and put it into effect Monday. Most visitors entering the courthouse were asked to turn off their phones, put them inside a soft, lockable pouch made by Yondr, and carry the pouch with them until they were ready to leave the building.

The long lines some anticipated didn’t materialize. Monday and Tuesday were the roughest days, said Evers, but the most grumbling came from employees. They weren’t required to lock their phones but were suddenly required to show identification.

At the introductory news conference last month, Jacqueline F. Allen, administrative judge of Common Pleas Court, called the pouches “a 21st century solution to a 21st century problem.”

The new system is court officials’ latest effort to deal with the problems cellphones cause in a criminal courthouse. At best, court proceedings were being interrupted daily by ringing cellphones.

At worst, phones were being used to take secret photos of victims or witnesses to intimidate or threaten them on social media.

Years ago, citizens entering the courthouse were required to surrender their cellphones at security. The phones were placed in individual lockboxes until the owner left the building. The system was scrapped because of the delays it caused, and because people complained that their phones were damaged or returned to the wrong person.

Allen said she broached the idea of using the Yondr mobile phone lockboxes after reading an October article in the New York Times about how entertainers like Chappelle have been using them to prevent interruptions and illegal recording of their concerts.

The city courts spent $50,000 to buy 4,500 Yondr pouches.

Evers and Williams said they are now working with Yondr officials to make design changes in the pouches to suit a courthouse setting. They said they wanted to make the pouches more resistant to tampering or destruction, and a little larger to accommodate newer, larger cellphone models.

“I’m very pleased,” added Evers. “You can’t put a price on safety, if just one person’s life is saved.”

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