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Published: 2012-12-04

Defense Attorneys Letting Suspects Use Cell Phones, Not a Good Idea



What do you mean it's not a good idea to give a criminal suspect a cell phone to make calls? While you are still at the police station. In the interrogation room. No, not a good idea at all.

As one Chicago attorney learned, cell phones are considered "contraband" and under Illinois law, are not allowed in penal institutions.

As reported by the Chicago Tribune, attorney Sladjana Vuckovic was charged with bringing contraband into a penal institution when she allowed a suspect in the slaying of a Chicago police officer to use her cell phone in an interview room. On November 29, 2012, Ms. Vockovic was acquitted by a jury after only 3 hours of deliberation.

Under the Illinois law, a person is prohibited from bringing contraband into a penal institution.

720 ILCS 5/31A-1.1 states:

"A person commits bringing contraband into a penal institution when he or she knowingly and without authority of any person designated or authorized to grant this authority (1) brings an item of contraband into a penal institution or (2) causes another to bring an item of contraband into a penal institution or (3) places an item of contraband in such proximity to a penal institution as to give an inmate access to the contraband."

720 ILCS 5/31A-0.1 states that a cell phone is considered "electronic contraband."

"Penal institution" is broadly defined as any penitentiary, State farm, reformatory, prison, jail, house of correction, police detention area, half-way house or other institution or place for the incarceration or custody of persons under sentence for offenses awaiting trial or sentence for offenses, under arrest for an offense, a violation of probation, a violation of parole, or a violation of mandatory supervised release, or awaiting a bail setting hearing or preliminary hearing; provided that where the place for incarceration or custody is housed within another public building this Article shall not apply to that part of the building unrelated to the incarceration or custody of persons.

Ms. Vuckovic was volunteering for the First Defense Legal Aid, a free legal service for those who cannot afford legal representation, when she met with suspect Timothy Herring in the interrogation room at Calumet Area headquarters, reports the Chicago Tribune. According to the story, Mr. Herring was being questioned in the deaths of two men, one of whom was a former Chicago Housing Authority police officer.

According to her testimony, Ms. Vockovic handed her cell phone to Mr. Herring during her two visits and allowed him to make calls, but she stated that she was not aware that cell phones were prohibited. She believed that contraband was limited to knives, guns, and drugs, and she did not think that an interrogation room qualified as a penal institution.

One juror said the consensus on the panel was that prosecutors failed to prove Ms. Vuckovic knew she was not allowed to bring a cell phone into the police interrogation room with her, reported the Tribune.

From one perspective, this amounts to jury nullification, as ignorance of law is not a defense to a crime.

There were, however, significant issues with the charge as it relates to the facts of this case, which would support an acquittal. As argued, there was an issue whether the interview room qualified as a "penal institution" and whether Mr. Herring was under arrest at the time that Ms. Vockovic allowed him to use her cell phone, under the terms of the statute.

The case caused significant waves among criminal defense attorneys, as many reported routinely bringing their cell phones into police interview rooms and let clients make calls, says the Tribune.

 One commentator notes that police stations rarely post any information that cell phones are not allowed, so it is incumbent on attorneys that enter police stations to be aware of the applicable rules and regulations for your state and for each particular police station.

Since cell phone calls cannot be monitored like calls made through the phones at the police station, it is not surprising that cell phones are generally prohibited, with obvious concerns about security and possible destruction of evidence.

Therefore, attorneys should err on the side of caution and refrain from allowing criminal suspects to use their cell phone, or at the very least, check to make sure you know the rules before doing so.

Anne O'Donnell is a recovering litigator who is now currently a Senior Writer for legal professional content at Findlaw.com. She practiced for 10 years in civil litigation in San Francisco.