The PA Superior Court today upheld the conviction of an Allegheny County Juvenile Court Probation Officer (JPO) for contempt of court, letting stand the 5-10 days sentence that was ultimately imposed by the trial court.
The contemptuous conduct arose when the 19-year veteran JPO was sitting in the front row of the general seating area of the courtroom, waiting to testify as a witness in a decertification hearing to transfer a matter to juvenile court. During a break in the proceedings, the judge observed the JPO texting on his cellphone and asked him to put his cellphone away. The officer looked around the courtroom, responded, “there’s nothing going on in here,” stated that he had an “emergency,” and continued to use his cellphone. [Ed. Note – that was a BAD DECISION]
The trial judge ordered the officer to leave the courtroom. The JPO complied. In fact, he left the courthouse, causing the juvenile’s defense counsel to request that the trial court recuse itself, over concern that the JPO’s conduct would reflect poorly on the court’s assessment of his credibility for the decertification proceeding.
The judge recused himself and then issued a Rule to Show Cause upon the JPO to show cause why the court should not hold him in contempt of court. At that hearing, the JPO apologized for his conduct, but did not present any other evidence. Accordingly, the trial court found the officer guilty of criminal contempt for using his cellphone in the courtroom and imposed a sentence of ten days, which was subsequently modified to 5-10 days incarceration.
In upholding the finding of contempt, the Superior Court set forth the elements required to sustain a conviction of contempt. Specifically, there must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt of (1) misconduct, (2) in the presence of the court, (3) committed with the intent to obstruct the proceedings, and (4) that obstructs the administration of justice.
As to the element of misconduct, the appeals court noted that the officer was using his cellphone in the courtroom in violation of a courthouse prohibition against the use of cellphones. Further, the court wrote that the officer “not only argued with the trial judge when the trial judge told [him] to put away his cellphone, but also continued to use his cellphone.” It was undisputed that this misconduct was “in the presence of the court,” meeting the second element.
As to the third, “intent,” element, the Superior Court explained that the “intent element of contempt focuses on whether the contemnor knew or should have known the conduct was wrongful, not whether the contemnor knew or should have known the conduct would obstruct the proceedings.” In concluding that the JPO “knew or should have been aware” that the use of a cellphone in the courtroom was wrongful, the court noted that the officer had been a juvenile probation officer in Allegheny County for approximately 19 years, the courthouse has numerous signs prohibiting the use of cellphones, and the trial court told the officer to put away his cellphone and he refused. The appellate court further noted that it was reasonable to infer from the officer’s experience as a JPO who appears in court frequently, that the officer “knew or should have been aware” that his defiance of the court’s directive to put away his cellphone was also wrongful conduct.
As to whether the officer’s conduct obstructed the administration of justice, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has previously concluded that a challenge to “the preservation of the court’s authority” is, in and of itself, a “significant disruption in a judicial proceeding” because it “obstructs the efficient administration of justice and demeans the court’s authority.” Therefore, although the JPO’s refusal to stop using his phone did not significantly disrupt the court proceeding at issue, the appellate court nonetheless found it to be an obstruction of justice.
Accordingly, the Superior Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding the officer guilty of criminal contempt.
With respect to the sentence imposed, the JPO argued that the sentence was “excessive and inappropriate, asserting that because his actions were neither ‘belligerent nor openly defiant,’ a punishment of imprisonment was unwarranted.” However, the Superior Court upheld the 5-10 day sentence,* concluding that the officer failed to present a “colorable argument” that the judge imposed a sentence inconsistent with the Sentencing Code or contrary to the fundamental norms underlying the sentencing process.
*that’s 5-10 days without a cell phone, by the way.
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