2011-05-26 / Local & State

Mobile Phones Increasingly Out Of Order In Court

By Bobby Kerlik

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Shawn Stewart’s phone beeped as he was sitting in an Allegheny County courtroom waiting to be called as a witness.

“ It was one beep. My phone was in my hand and they just took it. I had to sit in court like five hours to get it back,’’ said Stewart, 20, of Penn Hills. “I didn’t know. It was my first time in a courtroom.’’

Stewart and dozens of other people every month draw the ire of judges with their cell phone rings, beeps, songs and buzzes.

The electronic annoyances can become more than an embarrassment to the offending party. A judge in Kentucky sentenced a man to jail for 72 hours after his phone made noise. Many local judges said jail time is excessive but small fines are acceptable.

Stewart later was given his phone back – along with a directive to donate $50 to charity for violating Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning’s cell phone policy.

“If you can afford a cell phone, you can afford to donate $50 to charity,’’ Manning said. “It’s very disruptive.’’

Manning, who has handed out about 25 such fines in the past three years, isn’t alone among Allegheny County judges. Judge Jill E. Rangos forces scofflaws to donate $25 to the Children’s Room, a charity that sponsors a children’s area in the courthouse.

“Some days we have multiple phones going off,’’ Rangos said. “It’s a matter of respect for the court. Sometimes in the middle of court proceedings, there will be a song playing. It’s disruptive and disrespectful.’’

Judge Anthony Mariani confiscates phones but gives them back, usually the next day.

“We have to make an impression to show that we’re serious,’’ Mariani said.

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said judges wield broad power when it comes to keeping order in the courtroom.

“It’s fundamentally contempt of court,’’ Ledewitz said. “It’s something you have control over. Presumably, you’re told when you come in to shut off the phone. It’s not much different than talking, and judges have thrown people in jail for talking.’’

Signs posted around the courthouse inform people that phones are not to be used and should be turned off. Still, the calls come at the worst times.

Ron Gancas was watching part of the corruption trial for state Sen. Jane Orie when he heard a phone ringing.

“We’re sitting in court and this phone starts ringing. I’m deaf in my left ear and the phone was ringing. I thought, `Man, that guy’s in trouble.’ Then I realized it was mine,’’ Gancas said. “I thought I had turned my phone off.’’

A red-hot Manning asked him if he could read, since signs were posted outside the door.

Gancas, 69, who is president of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, donated $250 to his organization for his mistake. He thought the forced donation was fair but thought the judge should have given him a chance to explain.

“There’s a certain decorum in court, and I broke the rule. I should have made sure it was off before I closed it,’’ he said. “From now on when I go to court, I won’t carry a phone.’’

Cell phones are banned for most visitors to federal courtrooms. Only attorneys and reporters can carry them.

Westmoreland County President Judge John Blahovec said the rings in his courtroom happen less frequently than they once did. He doesn’t issue fines, although he noted signs telling people to shut their phones off before entering court.

“Usually what happens is the phone goes off and they run out of the room,’’ Blahovec said. “One thing I’ve threatened to do, although I’ve never done it, is bring the phone up and see if it’s gavel-resistant.’’

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