Dennis Nicholl
Dennis Nicholl, 63, was caught red-handed deliberately jamming mobile phone reception on Chicago public transportBrain Raida / Reddit

A 63-year-old man has been accused of carrying a handheld device to deliberately disrupt mobile phone signals for passengers commuting on the Chicago subway just so he could have some peace and quiet on his daily commute to work.

Dennis Nicholl, a certified public accountant at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, was arrested after undercover police officers observed him holding a bulky handheld jamming device while on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Redline.

Mobile phone signal jammers can be bought from multiple online shops and range in price from $80-$400 (£55-£277), depending on the size and power of the jamming device. Known in the US as "Cellphone signal jammers", the devices bear a passing resemblance to small cell internet routers used to provide public Wi-Fi – it is usually a bulky square or rectangular box with several antennas sticking out of it.

The CTA had been receiving multiple complaints over many months from passengers about bad mobile phone reception on both the underground subway and the elevated train lines, where reception is meant to be fine.

The mobile phone reception never improved even after multiple complaints to the CTA, and one day IT worker Brain Raida, 30, observed Nichol deliberately jamming the signal after seeing him holding the device and noticing that the entire carriage of commuters had suddenly lost service on their phones.

Caught red-handed

Raida snapped a picture and shared it on the social bookmarking website Reddit to warn other commuters, as well as complaining to the police after confronting Nicholl, who grinned at him in response.

Members of the Chicago Police Department, CTA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) then set up an undercover sting operation on 8 March after observing Nicholl getting onto a CTA Redline train and using the device between the Loyola and Granville stops.

An officer followed Nicholl onto the train at his usual starting station, sat down near to him and then made a phone call on his mobile phone. Sure enough, Nicholl immediately took out his signal jammer and pressed a button on it, which caused the mobile signal to drop. When Nicholl got off the train, he was arrested by other police officers.

According to his attorney, Nicholl had simply wanted some peace and quiet during his daily commute. "He's disturbed by people talking around him," attorney Charles Lauer told the Chicago Tribune. "He might have been selfish in thinking about himself, but he didn't have any malicious intent."

Nicholl was charged with unlawfully interfering with a public utility and a judge set bail for Nicholl at $10,000. However, this is not the first time Nicholl has tried to interfere with phone calls – in 2009 he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and was placed under court supervision for a year, while his equipment was confiscated and destroyed.