ST. LOUIS — Recent incidents in St. Louis and elsewhere in the state have caused some judges to reconsider whether they need to ban cellphones from courtrooms and, in some cases, entire courthouses.
Cameras are off-limits in most courtrooms aside from the occasional, specially permitted news media photography, but with the explosion of photo-ready cellphones, policing the restrictions is becoming more difficult.
"It's a national problem," St. Louis Circuit Judge David Mason told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Judges across the country are coming down on this."
One of court officials' top fears is that jurors or witnesses in criminal cases will be publicly outed and threatened or intimidated.
St. Louis prosecutors claimed that a relative of a person standing trial in a double-murder case this year was taking pictures of jurors with his cellphone camera and posting them on Facebook.
Less than a week later, on Nov. 5, a victim in a criminal case was caught taking photographs in St. Charles County Circuit Court. About a month after that, a woman was caught shooting pictures with her cellphone during a murder trial.
Courts in St. Louis once banned cellphones with cameras, but that changed when it became almost impossible to find a phone that doesn't have a camera. Some courts allow reporters to use laptops and smartphones for live text, email or Twitter feeds, but others are considering new restrictions after being burned by jurors doing online research or posting on social networking sites.
At a recent judges' meeting, St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert Dierker brought up the notion of banning phones in individual courtrooms. Presiding Judge Steven Ohmer said camera phones were becoming an issue "more and more."
Ohmer said it's up to individual judges to decide whether to allow cellphones in their courtrooms. Judges already warn jurors not to use phones, and deputies issue the same warnings to spectators.
St. Louis prosecutors have raised concerns about a camera used in Dierker's courtroom. The judge said in an email that prosecutors showed him Facebook photos and claimed jurors had been photographed, but he saw only a picture of the defendant, Ladon Grissom, during a break. The jury box and Dierker's bench were empty.
Dierker filed a court document Oct. 31 accusing a man of taking pictures 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. Dierker later dropped the issue because prosecutors "did not produce any evidence."
Federal courts are more restrictive of allowing electronic devices into courtrooms.
In U.S. District Court in St. Louis, camera-equipped cellphones are allowed, but cameras are forbidden. Chief U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry said rules governing the use of cellphones or smartphones in St. Louis are up to individual judges.
"So far, we haven't had any serious problems," she said.
In the federal courthouse in Kansas City, court visitors are required to turn their cellphones off and leave them at the front desk before they are allowed past the front desk. Attorneys, judges and other court employees can take their phones inside.
Rob O'Connor, assistant chief deputy U.S. marshal in St. Louis, said there often is no ill intent when people with cellphones violate photography rules.
"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."