Monday, 20 February 2012

@Courtroomjunkie: Leave your phone at home!

Fatimah Omari

A young man recently had the audacity to steal a police officer’s hat from a Sydney courtroom. To the embarrassment of the thief, CCTV footage showed him looking up at the cameras seconds before committing the crime. Were it not for the CCTV cameras installed in the courtroom, the Police would have been at a loss to explain how a $150 hat could suddenly vanish into thin air. So what could possibly motivate the brazen young thief? The man, a part time dancer, sought a genuine police hat to add an element of reality to his dance ensemble. The magistrate did not share the same zeal for costume authenticity and described the crime as ‘stupidity at its highest’, placing the man on a two year good behaviour bond.

This story got me thinking: what impact do we have on the administration of justice when we bring our own technology into a courtroom? In a world of iPods, iPhones and iPads, we have clearly become addicted to a drug called technology and consumed by one mantra: iCan’tLiveWithoutIt. While the judiciary is embracing the shift towards sophisticated electronic courtrooms, many judges remain somewhat hostile towards the use of electronics by members of the public. The capacity of modern mobile phones and laptops to covertly capture sound and video or to instantly transmit information across the globe at the touch of a finger is proving to be a challenge for courts and judges.

Restrictions on the use of technology by members of the public are increasingly being introduced to avoid unnecessary interruptions to court proceedings and to protect the identities of witnesses and jurors.

A young Sydney woman recently discovered that justice is swift for those who flout the rules. The woman in question was charged with contempt after her inner photographer came out to play. She had heard through the grapevine that a family friend was serving on a jury and, to mark what she believed to be a notable occasion, the woman took a photo of the courtroom and several jurors’ faces. In a world of tweets and tumblrs, such images can be mass-broadcast, edited, tagged, discussed, re-tweeted and blogged in a matter of minutes.

This woman insisted that she attended court with good intentions and for the purpose of satisfying her curiosity of the Australian legal system. The judge handed down a slap on the wrist and released her without conviction. In contrast, a UK judge recently sentenced a man to two months in prison in order to send a simple message to the public: photography in the courtroom will not be tolerated. Imagine the impact on a closed session of court if a reckless Gen Y juror tweeted a blow-by-blow account of proceedings.

It may be obvious to some that the taking of photos, capturing video or recording speech and sounds in a courtroom is a no-no. However, the cases mentioned above are a sign of the times and reflect the impact of the technology revolution on human behaviour. It has become commonplace for a person to pull out their phone in response to anything mildly photogenic, so it should come as no surprise that the knee-jerk reaction of one woman, who was excited to see a familiar face in the jury, was to take a photo. The use of camera phones to capture and instantly circulate weird and wonderful images has become popular, particularly amongst younger generations. With every moment now being regarded as a Kodak one, the photographer feels compelled to share with masses of digital friends and random acquaintances.

Of course mobile phones and cameras are not the only devices capable of frustrating judges and court officers. When I worked as a paralegal on a case involving terrorism charges, I witnessed the transformation of the Sydney West Trial Court into a fortress. Dual security checkpoints at the entrance to the complex and the courtroom made me feel like I was passing through stringent airport security. Since the trial concerned matters of national security, all recording-enabled devices had to be surrendered prior to entry into the courtroom. Separation anxiety ran high.

The intimidating routine of being scanned with a wand, having bags checked and handing over phones and laptops quickly became annoying for paralegals and regular visitors. However, there was no denying that electronics were a potential security risk given their diminutive size and ubiquitous nature. According to a court officer, confiscation of my iPod was necessary as (with a small attachment) it is able to record sound.

The technology revolution has proved to be a double edged sword. With respect to courtrooms, the risk lies not only in the ability to discreetly photograph or record sensitive material, but also the ability to instantly transmit this data. Fortunately, such violations of court rules are minimal and, for the majority of people, common sense prevails over a desire to share images taken inside the Supreme Court.

Image courtesy of Robin Hutton, made available by creative commons licence via Flickr.

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