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April 21, 2013

Sixth Circuit panel finds reasonable 30-day contempt sentence for courtroom cell phone use by observer

The sentencing component of this local Ohio article caught my attention based on the headline "Tweeting and texting earns Cleveland man contempt of court charge, 30 days in jail." Here are the basics:

Cell phones are routinely used in classrooms and bathrooms — sometimes even in churches.  But not in federal courtrooms, where all electronic devices are banned.  But that didn’t stop Maurtez Prince, 22, of Cleveland, from trying to sneak in a few tweets and texts last year during a buddy’s sentencing hearing at the U.S. District Courthouse in Akron.

Prince will be able to contemplate his crime from behind jail bars, where he will spend 30 days for contempt of court.

On May 31, the day of the friend’s sentencing, an assistant U.S. marshal spotted Prince using his cell phone in the courtroom and ordered him to turn it off, according to court documents. Later, the marshal again caught Prince texting and confiscated the phone.

Then, when Prince went to reclaim his phone, the marshal pointed out the three signs outside the courtroom banning cell phones and any cameras or recording devices, the court documents state.  That’s when Prince admitted having photographed his friend with the phone.

When U.S. District Judge John Adams heard about the incident he ordered Prince to appear before him and explain why he shouldn’t be held in contempt.  Prince argued that he had not deliberately defied a court order against cell phones or taking photographs, his lawyer said.  He claimed he hadn’t seen the signs, and had misunderstood the marshal, believing he simply had to silence his phone.  "Mr. Prince was very apologetic to the judge and the marshal for what he did," said Assistant Federal Public Defender Edward Bryan. "He wasn’t cocky at all. It was his first time in federal court and he didn’t understand the seriousness of his actions."

But Adams was not persuaded and found Prince guilty, stating that "the most troubling part" of the crime was that Prince had continued using his phone after he had been ordered to stop.  Adams sentenced Prince to 30 days in jail, but allowed him to remain free pending an appeal.

On Friday, a three-judge panel from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati released a six-page opinion affirming Adams’s sentence. Judge Deborah Cook wrote that Prince demonstrated "willful disobedience" and that "ample evidence supports the district court’s contempt finding."

A sentence of a month in jail for use of a cell phone in a courtroom struck me as quite severe, but the unpublished Sixth Circuit panel opinion in US v. Prince, No. 12-3789 (6th Cir. April 19, 2013) (available here), suggests to me there may be a lot more to the story. Specifically, the panel opinion highlights that Prince has a significant criminal history and that he may have been doing something quite nefarious when seeking to take pictures and send texts during another's federal sentencing proceedings.  In other words, after reading the panel opinion in Prince, I was less troubled by the decision to sentence this defendant to a month in lock-up for his contempt of court.

But I remain curious and uncertain as to whether there are perhaps some First Amendment implications here given that the courtroom Prince was in was not sealed and that sentencings are generally to be public proceedings.  I presume the First Amendment would generally preclude a courtroom spectator from being punished for writing/reporting on-line (say on a blog) about a public federal sentencing while that spectator has moved into the hallways of a public courthouse. Should I just view the courtroom ban/punishment here a proper time, place, manner restriction on the First Amendment, or do others agree there might be some important constitutional issues here?

April 21, 2013 at 01:18 PM | Permalink

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Comments

If the defendant was recording participants for future retaliation or intimidation, charge him and prove those crimes.

When it says, "...and he didn’t understand the seriousness of his actions." What seriousness, unless the court is like the Virgin Empress of China. None may gaze upon her without suffering death by being boiled alive.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 21, 2013 1:52:27 PM

I too am troubled. What government interest is served by a tweet ban? I am sympathetic to the time and place restrictions in the courtroom. For example, I can see how a phone call would be disruptive in that setting and it strikes me as a de minimus burden to require people to chat in the hallways. So maintaining order becomes the government interest. However, I cannot see the same disruptive possibilities in tweeting, which as far as I have witnessed (I do not tweet) seems a non-disruptive activity. How is it any more or less disruptive in the courtroom, for example, then two deaf people using sign language? Is that too banned?

There might be some legitimate reason for the ban but on superficial consideration I do not see it.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 21, 2013 2:34:10 PM

I wish that more judges would enforce the rules in their courtrooms via the contempt proceeding. Word will get around the hood sooner or later that you better behave or else you'll get to see your buddy at the local prison.

Posted by: JMac | Apr 21, 2013 3:38:04 PM

There are different standards for in-court and out-of-court speech regulation. Essentially, court rooms are a lot like classrooms under Tinker, and in-court speech can be regulated so long as it creates a reasonably probable threat of disruption. But if the speaker is outside of the court room, the standard is clear and present danger. This actually came up in an oft forgotten footnote in Cohen v. California. I published a short essay on the subject in the weekly Case Western Reserve University School of Law newspaper, available at this link:

http://www.cwrulawdocket.com/2013/02/the-difference-between-sotos-finger-and.html

-3L at Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Posted by: Bobby | Apr 21, 2013 3:38:15 PM

Any and all dealings in any public courtroom should not be held secret as secrecy is the best friend of tyranny. I believe that cell phones (on or off) with picture and recording capability are not permitted in most courtrooms (or am I mistaken).

Otoh, they also should not interfere with proceedings. I believe that cell phones should be permitted in court rooms within defined parameters, or am I missing something here.

Judges are not gods but public servants. All discussions and hearings by the US Supreme Court should be videotaped but that is forbidden. Why is that? Would the public fear their final defenders of the Constitution or recognize what a sham proceedings often are?

Posted by: albeed | Apr 21, 2013 3:40:53 PM

Bobby.

That is quite helpful though I do not think it is "location" so much as it is "context". Activities which might be disruptive in one context are not as disruptive in another context. Of course, location has a lot to do with setting the context but they are not identical.

So I'd ask my question again: what is so disruptive about texting in a courtroom? A phone call I understand because it produces noise. A text message seems a different thing altogether as it is almost if not entirely a silent endeavor.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 21, 2013 4:13:02 PM

The penalty for laughing in a courtroom is six months in jail; if it were not for this penalty, the jury would never hear the evidence - H. L. Mencken.

Posted by: George | Apr 22, 2013 3:30:37 AM

I noted that the opinion mentions the defendant previously being found in possession of "a Ruger pistol loaded with fourteen rounds of ammunition and eight bags of marijuana." If I ever encounter such a person, I hope the bags of marijuana are at the top of the clip.

Posted by: anon | Apr 22, 2013 6:10:11 PM

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