Crime & Courts

Mecklenburg County Courthouse to crack down on photographs

Taxpayers picked up most of the cost of the $150 million Mecklenburg County Courthouse.

But we better not take photographs inside.

Interior shots of the courthouse, without an advance OK from court officials, are strictly forbidden. The ban extends to participants of one of the most traditional of all courthouse activities, courthouse weddings. That’s right: Even post-“I do” selfies require prior approval.

Mecklenburg’s no-click rule has been in place for decades. Much of it has to do with the privacy and safety of jurors, witnesses and others involved in sometimes emotional or potentially life-and-death court cases. Part of it also involves the impact cameras can have on what Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Richard Boner describes as “the orderly handling of courthouse business.”

But while venerable, the courthouse policies have never been well advertised – outside the media that regularly covers trials. That’s about to change.

Boner said Friday that signs and electronic message boards will soon go up to warn courthouse visitors of the longstanding photography ban. And sheriff’s deputies who provide security throughout the building have been instructed to tell visitors that while their smartphones are allowed, the use of their smartphone cameras is not.

The courthouse has also added tougher penalties for media members who break the rules. Next month a Charlotte TV station and one of its reporters will appear before Boner to explain why they should not be held in contempt of court after the reporter used a cellphone camera to nab a shot of sports agent Drew Rosenhaus. The photo took place outside the courtroom in which Rosenhaus’ client, Carolina Panther Greg Hardy, had appeared moments before to face a domestic-abuse charge.

“We are taking this very seriously,” Boner said Friday morning following a meeting with a group of media representatives to discuss the policies. “We have rules that we’re going to enforce.”

Those rules run counter to the rip tides of popular culture. The courthouse has up to 5,000 visitors a day. According to national trends, up to two-thirds of those visitors bring smartphones with them.

Sometimes they are used – inappropriately, according to officials. Last week, a UNC Chapel Hill intern in the trial administrator’s office found courthouse photos popping up on Foursquare, a social media site dedicated to the discovery – and photographs – of “great places.”

If the courthouse qualifies as such, Boner takes little satisfaction. Earlier this month, a young man in the back of the judge’s courtroom used his phone camera during a hearing for a murder defendant. Boner saw the flash. A deputy made the man delete the photograph, even after the man explained that the defendant’s mother wanted a shot of her son standing up in front of the judge.

Long-fought battle

Cameras and courthouses share a tortured history. For years, judges and lawyers fought successfully to keep them out of trials. That changed in 1990 when after an eight-year study, the state Supreme Court decided that TV cameras and still photography “shall be allowed” in most court settings.

The court did make trial judges the final arbiters. And last week, Superior Court Judge Forrest Bridges banned cameras from the highly publicized Kenan Gay murder trial, now underway in Courtroom 5370.

The Observer and other Charlotte media covering the case have asked Bridges to reconsider, arguing in court this week that cameras enhance the public’s understanding of the legal process. For now, said Bridges, who has allowed cameras in his courtroom before, the ruling will stand.

Government policies on the issue vary greatly across town. On one side is the Federal Courthouse, which bans phones and all electronic devices except those used by lawyers, judges and other court officials. On the other is the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, a veritable photographer’s paradise by comparison.

That leaves the Mecklenburg courthouse in the middle – at least for now. Boner says the problem with courthouse photographs is controllable. But if it becomes otherwise, he says he’ll consider banning smartphones altogether.

Even for judges.