Cellphones increasingly a problem for courts across region
ST. LOUIS, Dec 27, 2012 (St. Louis Post-Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
One of the top fears of court officials is that jurors or witnesses in criminal cases will be publicly outed and threatened or intimidated.
During a double-murder trial this year, St. Louis prosecutors claimed that a relative of the accused was photographing jurors with his cellphone's camera and posting the pictures on Facebook.
Less than a week later, on Nov. 5, a victim in a criminal case in St. Charles County Circuit Court was caught taking a picture in court.
A month after that, it happened again, in the St. Louis murder trial of Rico Paul. A woman was shooting pictures with her Samsung Galaxy cellphone when she was spotted.
Courts generally ban picture taking, except to allow some limited news media photography on a case-by-case basis. St. Louis courts also once banned cellphones with cameras, when those were uncommon, but relented when it became almost impossible to find a phone without a camera.
Recent incidents in St. Louis and elsewhere have some judges rethinking whether to ban cellphones from courtrooms and even courthouses.
"It's a national problem," said St. Louis Circuit Judge David Mason in a recent interview. "Judges across the country are coming down on this."
Some state courts embrace technology, allowing reporters to use laptops and smartphones to broadcast live through text, email or Twitter. Other courts -- burned by jurors' doing their own online research or posting their thoughts on social networking sites, or people's photographing jurors -- are mulling new restrictions.
A Chicago judge has banned cellphones, laptops, tablet computers and anything capable of going online or making audio or video recordings from any courthouses where criminal proceedings are held, effective Jan. 14.
Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans said there were concerns not only about photography but also about people who appeared to be texting information to witnesses being held outside the courtroom for their turn to testify. He said he was targeting "gang members and others" involved in "attempts to intimidate witnesses, jurors, and judges. ..."
Lucas County, Ohio, which encompasses Toledo, banned phones and recording devices in February, citing such concerns, according to news reports.
In Edwardsville, cellphones are off limits to the public in Madison County's civil and criminal courthouses.
And just last week at a judges' meeting, St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert Dierker raised the issue of banning phones again -- in individual courtrooms this time.
Presiding Judge Steven Ohmer said it was becoming an issue "more and more."
In an interview, Ohmer said camera-equipped cellphones were once collected and tagged by deputies working security at the front doors. After the rules changed, it was left to each judge to decide. Judges warn jurors not to use phones. Deputies issue the same warnings to spectators. Signs are posted.
Ohmer said he thought the court would have to revisit the issue without resorting to a building-wide ban. "That would be a nightmare for the sheriff," he said, "and I think people would be unhappy as well."
St. Louis prosecutors raised concerns about a camera used in Dierker's courtroom. In an email in response to questions about the incident, he said prosecutors showed him Facebook photos and claimed that jurors had been photographed. Dierker wrote that he saw no pictures of jurors but did see one of the defendant, Ladon Grissom, during a break. The jury box and Dierker's bench were empty.
An Oct. 31 court document filed by Dierker accused a man of taking the photographs and ordered him to show cause why he should not be held in contempt of court for violating Missouri Supreme Court rules and a local court order. But the judge later dropped the issue, saying prosecutors "did not produce any evidence."
The same morning, Grissom was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. Deputies at that hearing confiscated attendees' cellphones until it was over.
In the Nov. 5 incident in St. Charles, a victim was caught taking a cellphone picture. She told Circuit Judge Jon Cunningham and his bailiff that she had done it to prove to her boss that she was in court. She was told to delete the picture.
After the St. Louis incident at the Paul trial Dec. 5, Mason said, he confiscated the offending woman's phone for the rest of the trial.
Asked whether those prone to "social oversharing" -- posting every detail of their lives online -- might overlook warnings or just have trouble adjusting to court rules, Mason was skeptical.
"It's hard for me to understand how people would think there was no problem," the judge said. He emphasized that in any event, courthouse rules and culture will not yield.
FEDERAL RULES TIGHTER
Federal courts have long been more restrictive of allowing electronic devices into court.
According to an informal survey of federal courts several years ago, about half of them ban all electronic devices belonging to the general public. Of those that allow them, one-third ban them from courtrooms and the remaining two-thirds require them to be off or silent.
In U.S. District Court in St. Louis, camera-equipped cellphones are allowed, but in East St. Louis they are forbidden for the general public.
Cameras are forbidden. Rules governing the use of cellphones or smartphones in St. Louis are up to the individual judges, said Chief U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry. "So far, we haven't had any serious problems," she said.
Perry said she normally ignored texting or Internet browsing on phones in court. But when she presided over a lengthy trial of outlaw bikers recently, she had a separate metal detector set up outside the courtroom and banned all electronic devices. Prosecutors had accused some of the bikers of intimidating witnesses and even suggested midway through the trial that there was a hit out on the prosecution team.
"Nothing happened (during the trial), but we wanted to be extra careful," Perry said.
"We're trying to not make life really difficult for the people who come to court, but if we start having problems, we would change that."
Despite stricter rules in federal court, people still slip.
In 2010, a deputy U.S. marshal caught a woman taking a picture of a defendant with a regular camera at a pretrial hearing. The camera was confiscated and the pictures were deleted, according to a transcript of the hearing.
Asked if there has been an increase in problems involving cellphone cameras, Assistant Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Rob O'Connor responded, "Yes ... and primarily the increase is due to the prevalence of the technology."
O'Connor said that often there was no ill intent: "I think it would be safe to say that in many of the cases, it would be due to the ignorance of the person making the recording."
Jennifer Mann and Susan Weich of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
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