Florida Court Restricts Reporter's Use of Laptop During Murder Trial

As if there hasn't been enough judicial scrutiny of live media coverage during ongoing trials recently, last week a Florida court banned a Florida Times-Union reporter from live-blogging during a high-profile murder trial in the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court of Duval County, Florida. An appeals court reversed the trial judge's ruling on Wednesday, but restrictions on the use of media in the courtroom remain in place.

The case in question, dubbed the Dubose Murder Trial, involves three brothers being tried for the murder of a 9-year-old girl. It has attracted significant public interest in the Jacksonville area. During the first day and a half of trial, reporter Bridget Murphy was sending periodic updates from her laptop in the courtroom to a dedicated blog page on the Times-Union's Jacksonville.com website. According to documents filed in the court, after the first day of live online coverage the blog had received over 1,000 hits and was laden with commentary from interested readers. Even the State Attorney for the Fourth Judicial Circuit, Angela Corey, who had stopped by the trial in a supervisory capacity on the first day, said she was a fan of the live coverage and called the blog "awesome," according to the newspaper's petition on appeal.

On the second day of trial, Circuit Judge L. Page Haddock expelled Murphy and her laptop from the courtroom. The ban was curiously raised sua sponte—meaning that neither the prosecution nor defense teams complained about Murphy's coverage, rather, the judge acted on his own account.  Judge Haddock told a Times Union attorney, "They’re distracting the jurors; they’re distracting me."  He also stated that blogging live from the courtroom violates a Florida Supreme Court order about how many transmitting devices are allowed in the courtroom. According to regular court practice in the jurisdiction, one television camera and one still photographer also were covering the proceedings, and Judge Haddock ruled that only two devices total were permitted.

Later, it became clear that Judge Haddock was relying on Judicial Administration Rule 2.450 (large pdf, Rule 2.450 on page 36), which says that electronic media and still photography coverage of public judicial proceedings "shall be allowed" subject to the court's discretion, and provides that "at least 1 portable television camera," "[n]ot more than 1 still photographer," and "[n]ot more than 1 audio system for radio broadcast" shall be permitted in any trial or appellate court proceeding.

The next day, Judge Haddock amended his order (see exhibit 5, page 30), stating that he would allow laptops, but that Rule 2.450 imposed a limitation of two total devices in the courtroom at any one time. Therefore, if Murphy wanted to continue her coverage, she could only do so if either the still camera or the video camera were not being used.

Sometimes when you don't get the answer you want, the best thing to do is to appeal to a higher authority. The Times-Union attorneys came out swinging and filed an emergency motion before the District Court of Appeal For the First District of Florida, requesting that laptop use be permitted within the court. This Wednesday, the appeals court granted the motion in-part and said that Rule 2.450 does not apply to laptops, even when used to live-blog:

The rule does not apply to the use of laptop computers, regardless of whether the device is used to transmit information outside the courtroom. The trial court retains the authority, however, to prohibit the use of any device which as a factual matter, the court finds causes a disruption of proceedings.

Critically, while the appeals court disagreed with Judge Haddock's legal reasoning, its ruling recognized his continuing authority to prohibit the use of laptops if it causes a disruption. As we have noted in our guide to live-blogging and tweeting from court, physical disruptions from the use of technology are a frequently cited concern of judges when considering similar requests. The appeals court decision thus left open to Judge Haddock the possibility of going back to his very first justification.  

And that is exactly what he did. After reading the appellate court's order in open court, Judge Haddock stated: "for now, my ruling about devices is going to stay the way it is."  According to the Times-Union, this means that "[t]he blogger and photographer can be in the courtroom at the same time . . . . But they cannot use the camera and laptop computer at the same time."  So, in the end, the appellate victory was almost entirely symbolic.  

In any event, the Dubose trial concluded on Wednesday, and the case was turned over to the two juries deciding the case on Thursday morning. (Using two juries is an unusual procedure put in place because evidence admissible against one defendant was ruled inadmissible against his brothers.) Bridget Murphy's is live-blogging again on Jacksonville.com, and she reports that one verdict should be announced momentarily. Be sure to check out her feed if you haven't seen live-blog coverage of a trial before; it's especially interesting because Jacksonville.com is posting user comments and questions in real time along with her coverage. 

(David O'Brien is an attorney and former CMLP Legal Intern. David received his J.D. from Northeastern University School of Law in 2009.) 


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