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Proposed rule to prohibit electronic devices in Fla. courts one step closer to being enacted

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A proposed addition to the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration that would give trial judges the authority to limit the…

A proposed addition to the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration that would give trial judges the authority to limit the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in courtrooms was submitted to the state's high court this week for approval.

If enacted, judges would have the discretion to ban cell phone use by jurors, journalists and members of the public attending court proceedings.

Criteria established in the proposed rule is nearly identical to the Florida Rule of Judicial Administration 2.450 concerning cameras in courtrooms. Both judicial rules allow a judge to ban certain electronic devices in order to: "(1) control the conduct of proceedings before the court, (2) ensure decorum and prevent distractions and (3) ensure the fair administration of justice in the pending cause."

More than 30 years ago, rules were implemented allowing cameras and other technology into Florida courts at both the trial and appellate levels. In a ruling stemming from the state's experimentation during the 1970s with a pilot program that televised judicial proceedings, the Florida Supreme Court found in In re Post-Newsweek Stations Fla. Inc. that the broadcasting of trials did not impair the ability of jurors to decide a person's guilt or innocence.

But it is not clear whether the rules pertaining to cell phones will apply the same case law provisions that protect the use of cameras in courts, said Jim McGuire, a media lawyer in Tampa, Fla.

"I fear the discretion being given to trial courts may be so broad that it is not only inconsistent from one case to the next, but it gives judges a lot of leeway to prevent things simply because they don’t like them, rather than because they are causing a problem," McGuire said.

Under the new rule, a presiding judge can order the removal of all electronics from jurors during a trial or deliberations. The rule also establishes clear rules of conduct that prohibit jurors from taking photographs in the courtroom, sending text messages during court proceedings and researching or communicating about the case before the juror.

In Feb. 2011, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and state media organizations sent a letter to the committee expressing concern about the original proposal and its lack of a specific standard for limiting or confiscating electronic devices.

The Reporters Committee along with The Florida Press Association, Florida First Amendment Foundation and Florida Association of Broadcasters asked the committee to change the rule so "that it is narrowly tailored to control devices based on ordinary security measures yet allows for full observation and reporting of proceedings by all members of the public."

All judicial rules enacted in the state are created by the Florida Bar Association and passed to the state Supreme Court for final endorsement. This proposed addition to the state's judicial administration was drawn up by the Rules of Judicial Administration Committee with the Florida Bar, which originates proposals of new rules and also reviews and updates the state's existing rules.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Florida – Open Courts Compendium: XI. Cameras and other technology in the courtroom