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Turn it off! Pa. court backs contempt rulings against women who used cellphones in courtroom

A state court has refused to overturn contempt of court rulings against two women whose cellphones went off in a Philadelphia courtroom.

Despite the women’s claims to the contrary, their noisy phones did disrupt the court proceeding that were occurring before Judge Bradley K. Moss on Dec. 5 2013, the Superior Court judges concluded in a recent opinion by Judge Judith Ference Olson.

The state court panel also rejected claims by Shakyra Thomas and Jawanda Wright that they were coerced by Moss when they were hauled before him for their contempt hearings.

Court filings state that Thomas and Wright were in the courtroom together to support another person who was to appear before Moss. Olson noted that signs are posted throughout the courthouse warning that cellphones must be turned off in the courtrooms, and that violations could result in seizure of the phones and contempt rulings against their owners.

Thomas faced such a penalty when court officials saw her sitting in the courtroom with her cellphone on during a sentencing hearing. She and others were looking at the phone’s screen and Thomas was giggling. Her phone was confiscated.

Five minutes later, Wright’s cellphone made a noise and it too was taken from her.

A companion of Wright and Thomas told Moss that her 4-year-old daughter had taken the phone from her purse and that Thomas had merely taken it from the child. Wright claimed her phone only made a sound because she was turning it off.

Moss had public defenders immediately appointed for Wright and Thomas. He found both women in contempt of court, but imposed no further penalty. The judge returned their cellphones after they agreed not to appeal the contempt rulings.

Wright and Thomas appealed to the state court anyway, claiming Moss had “extorted” their promises to waive their appeal rights by holding their phones hostage. Moss had given them the option of waiving their appeal rights and promptly getting their phones back, or giving no such promises and having the devices held as evidence during the 30-day window for filing an appeal.

Olson found no basis for Wright’s and Thomas’ coercion claims. The women weren’t forced to give the appeal waivers, but chose to do so to get their phones back quickly, the state judge noted.

Besides, Olson added, Wright and Thomas had used their phones “to commit an unlawful act and accordingly it was proper for the court to seize” their phones. Their actions clearly constituted misconduct, she found.

Had Moss not punished the women for violating the phone ban “the court’s authority would have been eroded and the ability to control the courtroom would have been threatened,” Olson concluded.

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