Monday, January 11, 2021

No cell phones in the courtroom

Here's another case from November 2020 in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth circuit.  Here's a map of the circuits.

This case is called United States of America v Rebecca Moriello and is an appeal of a case from the District Court for the Western District of North Carolina.

Defendant [Appellant] is an attorney who practices in the area of immigration law.

After completing a hearing on behalf of her client, Moriello requested permission to observe an asylum hearing [which was "closed" and confidential].  This permission was granted. A sign outside the courtroom stated: “Persons in EOIR space must turn off their electronic devices (e.g., smartphone, laptop). For clear and immediate business purposes only, attorneys and other representatives are exempt from this rule . . . .”

[I typically type on my phone, check emails, etc, while in court, so this is not unusual.  But it definitely depends on the courtroom.  Some judges allow it, others absolutely do NOT allow it.]

During the hearing, the bailiff observed Moriello typing on her phone. Because Moriello was not representing anyone in that hearing, the bailiff concluded that it wasn't for a "clear and immediate business purpose" and requested that she leave the courtroom or alternatively stop using her phone.  Moriello refused to do either.

[Note: if I was using my phone in the courtroom, I would have definitely stopped after being requested by the bailiff.  Or I would have left the courtroom.  I spent too much time/energy/money on obtaining my license to practice law, to jeopardize it by arguing with court personnel.  Plus, I value my reputation with the judges.]

The judge noted "Ms. Moriello had specifically asked for permission to come into a private confidential asylum hearing which is very rarely allowed. And I assumed it was so that she could learn something from it. The entire time that Ms. Moriello was sitting in my courtroom I did not see her paying attention to what was going on with the attorney or with the witness. She was pretty much non-stop glued to her cell phone and she was texting away, and I found it to be very distracting. I also found it to be very disrespectful given that she had asked for permission to sit in on this very sensitive matter, and she was not paying attention."  He asked her to stop using her phone because it was distracting to the current hearing.  She again refused.

The hearing continued and now TWO bailiffs were attempting to persuade Moriello to stop using her phone or conversely leave the courtroom.  She continued to refuse.  Eventually the police were called and the judge recessed the hearing.  While the hearing was in recess, Moriello continued to type on her phone.  The police escorted her out of the courtroom and out of the courthouse.  

A complaint was filed against her, with a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $5000 fine.  The government offered to settle the case without an admission of guilt, for a fine of $300.  Moriello rejected the offer and demanded a trial.  She filed several motions to dismiss the charges, all of which failed.  After trial, she was found guilty and fined $2500.

This is my favorite paragraph of the case:

"[O]ur review is limited to whether Moriello had fair notice that the regulations proscribed her conduct. Moriello argues that neither regulation defines which individuals at the court facility an ordinary citizen must obey and under what circumstances. Yet any person of ordinary intelligence would understand that the regulations prohibit the repeated refusal to cease distracting conduct in a courtroom during ongoing immigration proceedings as directed by both the presiding immigration judge and the uniformed bailiff assigned to that courtroom. Indeed, Moriello’s behavior was so disruptive as to prompt Judge Pettinato to call a recess and PSO Bridges to seek assistance from one additional PSO and two additional CMPD officers to remove Moriello from the courtroom."

The opinion ends with:
"It should come as no surprise that immigration judges and courtroom bailiffs have the authority to reasonably control the conduct of persons within their courtrooms. For the foregoing reasons, the district court’s judgment is Affirmed."

Do you agree with the court's conclusion?  Why or why not?


  1. Oh wow, it would seem Moriello has an inflated sense of self-importance!