Judges to decide on electronic devices on case-by-case basis

| 27 Apr 2015 | 04:12

— With the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declining to ban tweets, texts, email and other electronic communication in Pennsylvania courtrooms, county judges will decide on a case-by-case basis whether the public and news organizations are allowed to report court proceedings in real time.

Some prosecutors and defense attorneys say they're in favor of making electronic communication part of the open access to court proceedings protected by the state Constitution.

“We're in a new world," said James Swetz, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “The law has to catch up with the new world."

But some judges ban all electronic devices, fearing the effect they could have on courtroom decorum or even the safety of witnesses.

“We don't want anyone to be able to communicate during a criminal proceeding," Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta said.

Gayle Sproul, legal adviser to the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, said the state needs a clear policy, and she believes the presumption should be that tweeting, texting and email are permitted unless there's some reason to stop it.

Nora Sydow of the National Center for State Courts said that while there's no consensus on electronic communications during court sessions, the trend appears to be toward more permissive rules since courts recognize that such devices play an essential role in personal and professional lives and “It's increasingly difficult for people when you cut them off."

Three years ago, the high court's criminal procedure rules committee drafted a proposed rule banning electronic communications in court, citing growing concerns about use of cellphones, smartphones, tablets and other devices by jurors, witnesses and observers.

The committee said the existing rule banning broadcasts from courtrooms had been interpreted in different ways; for example, courts in Dauphin and Centre counties had allowed reporters to tweet and blog during some proceedings. The panel also raised fears that mobile devices could be used to take photos or video or post information to intimidate witnesses.

Chief Justice Thomas Saylor declined to discuss the court's reasons for tabling the rule, but Justice Correale Stevens said in a recent interview that the five justices simply couldn't reach a consensus.

Swetz said jurors have long been admonished not to read newspapers, watch television or have conversations about trials in which they are serving, and many courts have added admonitions against engaging in social media discussions or doing research on the Internet about cases.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli said that as long as such warnings are given, it makes no difference how fast information gets out.

“What difference does it make if it's being tweeted simultaneously or if it's being printed the next morning in the paper?" Morganelli said. “It's the same result."