A Cautionary Tale for Attorneys: Don’t take photos in court!

This morning an attorney showed me the 2016 Chicago Traffic Court “key” calendar, which not only had all the “key dates” for next year, but also, by implication, the two weeks when court will be closed for judicial seminars (which is a good thing for attorneys to know).  (By the way, those seminars will be held the weeks of February 1rst and April 4th).

The attorney asked if I wanted to take a picture of the schedule.  I declined to take a picture, but instead typed in the information into my phone.  Why, you may ask, did I write down the information when taking a picture would be so much easier?  Because taking a picture in court violates the Court Rules.

Obviously, this information is easy enough to forget, as this attorney, who has been practicing for over 20 years, did, and, as it turns out, so did a partner at  Loop law firm firm, who got into trouble for taking pictures of exhibits in a “high-profile” Federal “spoofing” trial and tweeting them, along with his comments, to his twitter followers.

From the Chicago Tribune (story by Jason Meisner):

A partner at a large Chicago law firm is in hot water after he was caught taking photos on his cellphone and tweeting them from the courtroom during the recent high-profile “spoofing” trial of a New Jersey-based trader.

Vincent “Trace” Schmeltz, a co-chair of the financial and regulatory litigation group at Barnes & Thornburg LLP, has been ordered to appear before U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo on Dec. 8. He faces possible sanctions for nine photos he tweeted during the trial of Michael Coscia, according to a court filing late Friday.

Schmeltz was in the spectator’s gallery of U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber’s 19th floor federal courtroom in Chicago on Oct. 28 when an FBI agent spotted him holding his phone at chest-level and snapping photos, records show. Court officials later saw nine tweets on Schmeltz’s Twitter page, @TraceSchmeltz, each with a caption describing evidence that was being displayed in the trial.

“Prosecution trying to impeach … with this email,” Schmeltz wrote in one post, which included a photo of the email as it was being displayed in court on a flat-screen monitor, the filing stated.

Photographing or recording of any kind is forbidden at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse except in the lobby.

Leinenweber had specifically barred all cellphone use in his courtroom for Coscia’s trial, which was the first of its kind in the nation and was closely watched by players in the controversial world of high-frequency trading.

On the day Schmeltz sent his tweets, there was a 4-foot sign posted outside the courtroom that read “PHOTOGRAPHING, RECORDING or BROADCASTING IS PROHIBITED,” according to the filing.

Reached at his office Monday, a contrite Schmeltz said he was caught up in the moment, calling the trial a “unique civics lesson” that he wanted his 244 Twitter followers to know about. He said that even though he is a seasoned attorney, it was one of the first times he’d ever been in court for a case that wasn’t his and he simply failed to notice the ban on cellphone use.

“I’m not used to being a spectator,” Schmeltz said. “It’s a lesson learned on my part.”

Schmeltz, who immediately deleted the offending tweets when he was notified of the violation, said he was careful to photograph only the evidence on the screen, not witnesses or jurors.

He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 2000 and has no disciplinary record as an attorney, according to online records with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

A federal jury deliberated for less than an hour last week before convicting Coscia of all 12 counts of fraud and spoofing.

St. Louis prosecutor tweets about rape trial

A St. Louis Circuit Attorney got into hot water for tweeting about an ongoing rape trial, which had the potential for influencing the jury.  From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

A Missouri appeals court has expressed concern that St. Louis city’s top prosecutor posted case details on Twitter during the trial of a rape suspect, but has allowed the conviction to stand.

A three-judge panel of the Eastern District Missouri Court of Appeals rejected an appeal in the case of David Polk, despite the concerns over the tweets by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.

Polk was convicted at a June 2012 trial of forcible rape and sodomy in an attack on an 11-year-old girl 20 years earlier. DNA evidence linked him to the crime. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Joyce tweeted some details of the case during the trial.

The judges did not weigh in on whether Joyce’s comments before and during the trial were improper as Polk’s attorneys claimed. But the ruling expressed concern that use of tweets “immediately before and during trial greatly magnifies the risk that a jury will be tainted.”

Joyce issued a statement saying the ruling recognized that “the basic facts underlying the tweets are part of the public record.” She said her last five tweets came after jurors had been warned away from news and social media.

“I am confident that continued use of social media by the Circuit Attorney’s Office will balance the competing rights of all citizens,” she wrote.

The Missouri Public Defender’s office called the tweets “prosecutorial misconduct.”

Joyce is a frequent user of Twitter. St. Louis’ top public defender, Mary Fox, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that her office had complained about Joyce’s tweets in other court motions.

“If the behavior is not going to stop, then perhaps the next step is a bar complaint  either by an attorney or by a defendant,” Fox said.

Both the Illinois and Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct state that “a lawyer who is participating or has participated in the investigation or litigation of a matter shall not make an extrajudicial statement that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know will be disseminated by means of public communication and will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in the matter.”  This is one reason (client confidentiality is another) that I would never think of tweeting my thoughts about a case that I was in the midst of trying.

This Appellate decision only concerned whether the defendant was entitled to a new trial as a result of the tweets.  We will be on the lookout to see whether Joyce’s actions result in charges for violating the ethics rules.

Riverside, IL Police to tweet names of DUI arrestees

Does “public shaming” ever work as a deterrence?  That is the reason given by Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel for the decision to have their department tweet the names of anyone it arrests for DUIs, possession of a controlled substance or driving while suspended or revoked, beginning Monday.

Over the years, I have seen attempts by police departments to shame people by publishing mug shots in the newspaper or on a web page.  Yet, crime keeps on happening.

What happens when someone is found not guilty?  A google search of his or her name will likely still turn up Riverside’s tweet of the arrest.  What if the person was guilty, but goes on to serve a sentence, and never commit the offense again?  Will the tweet remain on the internet forever?

What do you think?

“Pothead Princess” Tweets “2 Drunk 2 Care” Before Fatal Crash

A screenshot of Mendoza's twitter page

A screenshot of Mendoza’s twitter page (since deleted).

A Miami woman who allegedly drove the wrong way on a highway while intoxicated, causing the deaths of two people, had sent out a tweet stating that she was “2 drunk 2 care” shortly before the accident.

Kaila Mendoza, age 20, had a twitter account @hiimkaila (since deleted) in which she proclaimed herself the “Pothead Princess.”

From CBS Miami:

Troopers said Ferrante was in the car with her friend, 21-year-old Marisa Catronio along Sawgrass Expressway when they were hit by Mendoza. Catronio, who was sitting in the Camry’s front passenger seat, was killed on impact, according to her father, Gary Catronio…

Kayla Mendoza, 20, was heading east in her Hyundai Sonata in the westbound lanes of the expressway when she collided with the Toyota Camry driven by Ferrante just west of University Drive around 1:45 a.m., according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

Kaitlyn Nicole Ferrante suffered from severe head injuries in the accident and was kept on life support while in the hospital, according to Florida Highway Patrol. Thursday morning she was pronounced dead…

Mendoza’s Twitter handle was @highimkaila and in the description, she’s described as the “pothead princess.”

Mendoza had previously tweeted thoughts like, “Can’t deal with people that don’t have their *expletive* together,” and a picture of a hand holding what appears to be a marijuana cigarette.

On November 12, Mendoza tweeted, “2 high 2 care,” and on November 2, “I really am so baked right now.” The tweets were difficult for Marisa’s family to read.