Cellphone incident at abuse trial turns spotlight on electronic devices in Brooklyn courts

Hon. Barry Kamins, acting administrative judge for civil matters. Eagle file photo by Ryan Thompson

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Cell phones, iPads and other similar electronic instruments have become commonplace in today’s society. They provide us with an ease and speed of communication and sharing never experienced before. With the click of a button, someone can take a video with his or her iPhone, for example, and stream the images in real-time to millions over the Internet via Facebook or Twitter. 

This ease of use and unlimited access, however, has created problems in many U.S. courtrooms, and the issue of electronic communication has now found its way into Brooklyn’s courtrooms.  In November, during the well-publicized and controversial sex abuse trial of  Hasidic counselor Nechemya Weberman, a picture was taken of the accuser and posted on the Internet.

Four men were detained in connection with this presumed intimidation tactic. Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Hon. John Ingram, the judge presiding over the case, chided the men stating “this is on the Internet now, it’s probably streamed all over the world! What you have done ... is take photos in the courtroom..." Justice Ingram advised the four men, who may be charged with criminal contempt, that they “might want to avail [themselves] of counsel.”

The four men were also ordered by Hon. Ingram to  "[n]ever come into my courtroom ever again and bring a phone with you." But does this “no cell phone” rule only apply to the four men accused of taking and posting photos of a witness or is it a blanket rule applicable to all observers to trials?

Other states have also grappled with similar problems. In Arkansas, a murder conviction was appealed on the grounds that the trial judge should have dismissed a juror caught using Twitter during the trial.  In 2011, the California legislature passed a law requiring trial judges to explicitly inform jury members of bans on wireless and electronic communication during trials.  

Here in Brooklyn, Hon. Barry Kamins, acting administrative judge for civil matters for the Second Judicial Circuit, advised the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that the use of cell phones is prohibited in courtrooms. “There are signs outside of each courtroom that the use of phones or other similar instruments is prohibited,” Kamins said.

In addition to signs, the New York State Unified Court System, advises, via its website, that you “cannot talk  on a cell phone … [or] take pictures … in the courtroom.”

But although the use of electronic devices may be prohibited in Brooklyn courtrooms, but there is no full-scale ban on possession, as such, of cell phones and the like.

This policy is different in the Brooklyn federal courts.  The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, housed in Brooklyn, prohibits visitors to the courthouse from keeping phones, cameras, or other recording devices on their persons while in courtrooms. In fact, cell phones are typically confiscated upon entering the courthouse and returned when one exits.  

Attorneys visiting the federal courthouse however, are allowed to possess cell phones as long as they present proof (i.e., verification of bar membership) that they are practicing attorneys.

The rules enforced in the federal courthouse cannot be applied to state courtrooms, Kamins said. “Thousands of people enter our [state] courtrooms everyday,” he commented. “It would be impractical to collect every cell phone of every visitor to our courtrooms.”

And another Brooklyn Supreme Court judge, who requested to remain anonymous, noted that  “since trials are generally open to the public, it would be very hard, if not impossible, to keep all cell phones out entirely.”

Individual judges can, however, enforce stricter rules regarding electronic devices in their respective courtrooms. “When hearing some gang cases, some judges have security collect cell phones before persons are allowed to enter the courtroom,” Kamins said.

It is left to determine whether the recent incident in Hon. Ingram’s courtroom will force the state courts to adopt a policy similar to that in federal courts, however, more judges are likely be become keenly aware of the use of electronic devices in the courtrooms and trials they preside over.

December 11, 2012 - 1:27pm



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