Dennis Nicholl, a 63-year- old Chicago man was arrested on Tuesday and charged with a felony for the unlawful interference with a public utility. His bail was just set at $10,000. His crime? Using a cell phone jammer on the subway.  Nicholl, dubbed the “the cellphone police,” at his bond hearing is an otherwise unassuming financial analyst for the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Science Systems. He admitted to using the cell phone jammer on the subway, saying that he only wanted some peace and quiet.  Many consider talking on the phone while on public transportation a social faux pau and virtually everyone has experienced annoyance at the hands of an overzealous cell phone user.  As a result, Nicholl’s arrest has been met with mixed reviews.

Before Nicholl’s cell-phone jammer was confiscated, people on the Red Line in Chicago had reported frequent cell-service outages. In fact, several had seen Nicholl using the device. When a young Chicago blogger spotted Nicholl in October of 2015, he did what any good millennial would do and took to social media. He jokingly asked “Who is this dude? And why didn’t he think to conceal his technological weapon of social destruction?” Pictures of Nicholl with his bulky device circulated the internet for several months on popular websites including Reddit. While many commuters were annoyed, others found humor in this cell phone vigilante. The FCC and the Chicago police however are not laughing.

In recent years, the FCC has decided to step up enforcement efforts against cell phone jamming devices, which are illegal for public use in the United States.  Michele Ellison, Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau has emphasized that these devices are indiscriminate. While perhaps intended to disrupt noisy conversations, they can create safety hazards by preventing emergency communications. Devices like Nicholl’s can be purchased from China for as little as $30, and the proliferation of their use has the government on edge. When the Chicago police received tips about Nicholl’s actions, they notified the FCC and formed an undercover “mission team” to catch him in the act. Undercover officers staked out a popular stop on the Red Line. After Nicholl’s boarded the train, a plainclothes officer sat near him and made a personal call on his cell phone. When Nicholl reacted by turning on his jamming device, he was arrested.

The government’s swift and calculated response to Nicholl’s actions demonstrates its commitment to preventing the use of cellphone jamming technology in the U.S. While there is widespread agreement that Nicholl didn’t have malicious intentions, his arrest has sparked conversations about the dangers these seemingly innocuous devices can pose. From now on, riders have suggested that the cell phone vigilante simply wear headphones.

Allison Laubach

 

 

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