Judges make so secret of their frustration when the ring of a cellphone pierces the silence of their courtrooms, but a Baltimore County judge tried to lock a spectator up last year after finding his claim that he forgot to turn his phone off “incredible.”
Fortunately for absent-minded court spectators, the Court of Special Appeals ruled last week in an unreported opinion that not turning off your phone is not grounds for contempt “on its face.”
Kearay Miller was attending a sentencing hearing for his brother in Baltimore County Circuit Court in May 2015 when his phone rang, prompting the presiding judge to tell deputies to take him into custody and prepare him for a contempt hearing.
“I have told everyone during the course of this trial that their telephones must be turned off,” the judge admonished Miller. “You came back into this courtroom. You were fully aware of those instructions.”
(The judge is not identified in the Court of Special Appeals ruling and could not be found in state court electronic records.)
Miller said he mistakenly neglected to turn his phone back off after stepping into the hallway to update family members on his brother’s case. But the judge found Miller guilty of direct criminal contempt and sentenced him to five months in jail.
The appellate court found there was insufficient evidence to show Miller intended to be disruptive, rebellious, insubordinate, willfully disobedient or openly disrespectful. The judge’s analysis of the facts, that Miller knew cellphones must be turned off, that his phone rang and that the judge did not believe his explanation was not enough to establish his intent.
“There is, perhaps, a host of reasons why Miller may have had his phone on without harboring contumacious intent,” Judge Stuart R. Berger wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.
Though one of the reasons could be an intent to disrupt proceedings, the judge made no findings about Miller’s intent and a contempt finding could not be supported, the appellate court noted.
The moral of the story: Turn off your phone in court. A judge just has to be specific to find you in contempt.