Judge bans cellphones in Dorchester courthouse
Photos were snapped of witness, jurist says
After learning that someone used a cellphone camera to snap photos of a witness inside the hallways of the Dorchester courthouse she supervises, Justice Sydney Hanlon decided enough was enough.
She became the first district judge in Suffolk County, and perhaps the state, to ban cellphones throughout a courthouse. Her order covers everyone except court staff, lawyers, jurors, and police officers on official business.
"I think the technology went bounding ahead," Hanlon said in a telephone interview yesterday.
"It seemed like all of a sudden all of the cellphones had cameras. . . . There was at least one case in the past on a trial I sat on where there was an accusation that the defendant was taking a picture of an undercover officer."
David Casiano, 36, of Dorchester, was convicted of witness intimidation and sentenced to a year in prison last year after taking pictures of undercover drug detectives inside Dorchester District Court in December 2004, court records show.
Also worried about witness intimidation, Robert A. Mulligan, the chief justice for administration and management of the state's trial courts, banned "Stop Snitchin' " T-shirts from courthouses statewide last January and ordered that people not use cameras on their cellphones.
But he did not ban camera phones entirely.
Hanlon said she had to adopt a stricter policy after a man stood in the courthouse hallway late last year and took pictures of a police officer who was a witness, which she said was at least the second time witnesses had been intimidated in that manner at Dorchester District Court.
She said she could not give more details of the episode because the case may be pending before her court.
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said he is not aware of any other district courts besides Dorchester where cellphones have been banned, but he also said it's a good idea.
"My number one objective -- as I suspect Judge Hanlon's is -- is to keep witnesses and court personnel safe," Conley said.
"These images can be transmitted instantaneously across the Internet," the district attorney said. ". . . This kind of overt intimidation seems to be a growing problem."
David Frank, a reporter for Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and a former Suffolk prosecutor, agreed, saying that he is aware of cases in which cellphone cameras have been used by associates of defendants to photograph prosecutors trying the case.
"You see people acting out now in ways they didn't a few years ago," he said.
"It's getting much more brazen. . . . There's definitely a sense in the legal community that people are upping the stakes."
Frank cited the shooting of a witness on the steps of the courthouse in Fitchburg, along with attacks on two separate defense lawyers by their clients in recent months.
Prosecutors and police say witness intimidation reinforces the street code of silence against helping police or testifying in court, making it more difficult to secure convictions and get dangerous criminals behind bars.
Last year, at the prodding of law enforcement officials, state lawmakers toughened penalties for witness intimidation and created an extensive state witness-protection program to relocate those vulnerable to reprisal.
Hanlon said Dorchester District Court has felt safer since the cellphone ban went into effect Jan. 2.
She said groups of people who used to congregate to support criminal defendants are less visible.
"A lot fewer people come to court just to hang around," she said. "There are people who won't come in if they have to be away from their phones."
Suzanne Smalley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.