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The punishment should fit the crime

To the Editor,

Movie theaters, church services and courtrooms all discourage, if not forbid, cellphone use. In point of fact, Beaufort County strictly enforces a prohibition not only on cellphone use, but even the simple possession of cellphones in the “off-mode” within its courtrooms.

Despite “No Cellphone” postings, security guards and metal detectors, cellphones sometimes find their way into courtrooms: carried in the hands, purses and pockets of inattentive people distracted into numbness by the anxiety of “going to court.” When it happens, these phones are treated like weapons-grade plutonium, and the offenders risk being held in contempt of court. They have been taken into custody, escorted to the courthouse basement, photographed, searched, given a jailhouse jumpsuit, shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles and jailed.

Is this level of enforcement necessary? Cellphones are often a distraction, and no one fails to appreciate that if they ring, bark or play the national anthem during a court proceeding, they will disrupt those proceedings. Neither does anyone believe that there should be no consequences for disrupting the court. Its business is a serious business. Defendants, plaintiffs, attorneys and judges have a right to expect that they will not be interrupted as they go about their work. Judges can hardly be blamed for removing potential interruptions.

But…We expect the law to follow a simple truism: The punishment should fit the crime. In this regard, what we ask for from our lawmakers and judges is above all good judgment. To be just the law must not only be applied to all parties equally, its application needs to be proportionately tailored to fit the offense as well.

It is not unreasonable to keep cellphones out of the courtrooms, but should their owners continue to be incarcerated whether or not there has even been a disturbance? What if the offense is not deliberate, but rather due to simple forgetfulness or inattention?

The UNC School of Government knows of no other county where things have gone so far.

In 2013, Michael Crowell, writing at the UNC School of Government commented: “Typically, judges have the bailiff take the offending cellphone and hold it for a while. That is probably okay as part of the court’s authority to stop the interruption of the proceeding and bring the contempt to an end. But the phone ought to be returned to the owner when court is over, if not earlier … ”

Periodically, every policy needs to be reviewed. Beaufort County’s judges stand out as competent and experienced jurists; they can readily modify the current protocols — protocols that were initially well intended, but are now giving evidence of having unintended consequences. As a result of these consequences our friends and neighbors, men and women, have literally been put in chains and jailed for their cellphones even when those cellphones were turned off and caused no interruption of the court’s proceedings.

The standard of enforcement Mr. Crowell has suggested is to take the offender’s cellphone, not their freedom and dignity.

Warren Smith
Beaufort County