Courthouse Adds to Security by Restricting Cell Phones, Cameras

Witness and jury protection key drivers in keeping phones and cameras out of the court


Dec. 3--Restrictions on cameras and cell phones in the Allegheny County Courthouse that begin today are the latest in a series of security enhancements that began when metal detectors were installed seven years ago.

"The activities of the streets seem to be spilling over to everything," Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said. "What's happening is violent crimes are being committed in the communities, and there are people who want to settle these matters on their own."

Since metal detectors were set up at courthouse doors in May 2000, judges have had panic buttons put on their desks and sheriff's deputies began carrying Tasers. Guns are not permitted in the courthouse.

The metal detectors prevent from 20 to 30 knives a day coming into the courthouse, security guard Robin Scott said.

However, previous measures have not stymied witness intimidation, which has become prevalent in many communities through slogans such as "Stop Snitchin'." Digital pictures -- some taken by cell phones -- have made it easy to snap a photo of a witness that can be posted to a Web site, judges said.

"The ability to take pictures is not limited to the media anymore. Anyone with a cell phone can take a picture," Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman said. "The mentality out there is that, 'We'll get you back if you testify.' "

All 14 criminal court judges signed an order banning the use of cell phones and other electronic devices on the floors of the courthouse where criminal cases are heard.

The order -- which also applies to the news media and attorneys -- was made public last week and leaves small areas on those floors for the use of electronic devices.

"If we have people willing to come and participate in the system, we ought to do everything in our power to protect them," Cashman said.

Judges said they frequently catch people trying to snap pictures inside courtrooms. Even with tight security at the trial of Leslie Mollett -- convicted of killing state police Cpl. Joseph Pokorny -- a spectator sneaked a camera into the courtroom and was arrested after snapping a picture of a key witness while he was on the stand.

Witness intimidation was a factor in the trial of three men convicted in connection with the shooting death of Keith Watts Jr. outside Carrick High School.

Sheriff William Mullen said anyone who snaps a photo of an undercover police officer in court could jeopardize a life.

"Say a picture of an undercover gets circulated. These cops go into places by themselves to make drug buys," Mullen said. "We want to minimize the dangers they face."

Violence inside the courthouse is relatively rare. In 1992, a crazed defendant attacked Common Pleas Judge Walter Little on the bench during a plea hearing. Dewitt Smith, a convicted robber, rushed past three deputies and bit Little above his right eye as the judge had him pinned to the ground.

However, in 2005 in a Fulton County, Ga., courthouse, a rape suspect wrestled a gun from a sheriff's deputy, then killed a judge, court reporter and sheriff's deputy.

Those slayings came less than two weeks after the husband and mother of U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow were fatally shot in Chicago. The murders were linked to a man who had lost a civil case in her courtroom.

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