If you’ve ever been to Forsyth District Court – and for your sake, I hope you haven’t — you will no doubt recall hearing a loud admonishment to turn off cell phones and electronic devices.
Forget (or ignore) the bailiff’s warning, and you’re liable to have your phone confiscated. In extreme cases, a citation for contempt of court is possible.
Still, people persist. Lawyers, police officers and spectators discreetly sneak peeks at their phones while waiting for their cases to be heard. A see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, look-the-other way sort of policy exists in some courtrooms.
There is a line, though, one that was blown right past last week when Officer Timothy Hanks of the Winston-Salem Police Department thought it wise to send a text message to a prosecutor while Hanks was testifying from the witness stand.
At best, it’s arrogance on the part of someone who should know better. At worst, it's gross misconduct and an attempt to undermine the very system he’s sworn to uphold.
Veering from the norm
The case in question, state v. Donna Waters, came up Tuesday afternoon in the new DWI court established to help cut down on a backlog of driving while impaired cases.
Waters, 53, was facing a bench trial before Judge George Bedsworth. She had been stopped by Hanks in Walkertown just before 11 p.m. the night of Jan. 28, 2011.
Hanks is no rookie. He’s been with the Winston-Salem Police Department since 2004 and since Nov.15, 2010, has been a member of the county DWI task force, a unit specifically trained to recognize and arrest impaired motorists. He has charged hundreds of drunken drivers and can cite the nuances in the law better than most attorneys.
According to court records, Hanks cited Waters for driving while impaired, possession of schedule IV narcotics and failure to maintain lane control.
Those are the facts that would be argued once the case made it to court. It’s a routine matter that wouldn’t ordinarily attract attention.
Where it veered from the norm was when Hanks sent a text message to Jonathan Shrader, the assistant district attorney in court that afternoon. John Barrow, Waters’ attorney, was speaking to the judge at the time.
It’s not clear what Hanks was trying to accomplish; no one involved would say. Shrader wouldn’t comment, but his boss, District Attorney Jim O’Neill, said Shrader waved off Hanks’ attempt to get his attention and didn’t respond to the text message.
Bedsworth said he “probably shouldn’t comment since I don’t know that the matter is over.” Through his superiors, Hanks declined comment.
Barrow said, “I cannot comment on the case as it is pending litigation. However, I can say that the WSPD is an excellent police department, and it would be an exception for an officer to have such disregard for the courts and our system of justice.
“I trust Chief Cunningham to handle the matter.”
‘The game going on’
Faced with such an egregious violation of court decorum, the judge had several possible options.
He could have confiscated the phone. He could have held Hanks in contempt and fined or jailed him. He could have dismissed the case entirely.
Bedsworth chose none of those options. Instead, he convicted Waters of the DWI and the traffic offense. She was acquitted of the narcotics charge and given a 60-day suspended sentence. An appeal of the decision is possible.
Making matters worse in this case is that Hanks should know better.
In August, he created a stir in the courthouse by posting pointed and obvious criticisms of judges and court officials in an exchange on Facebook with a fired state trooper – a slip-up in judgment his superiors surely knew about.
“Number 1 negative of my job …. Dealing with lawyers and court … wish you all could see the game going on here.
“One day we will all stand in front of a righteous Judge who isn’t going to listen to argument. Thankful that I know my final destination.”
That’s nice, but in courtrooms in these United States, the arbiters of justice wear black robes.
Asked whether Hanks had — or would be — disciplined for having such disdain for the judicial system, Chief Scott Cunningham said he was “aware of the complaint and the matter is under investigation. Any other comments at this time would be inappropriate.”
One person who would offer an opinion was Ron Wright, a nationally renowned professor at Wake Forest School of Law.
“That’s a slap at the judge,” Wright said. “It says, ‘You’re not in control of the courtroom.’ …. If I were the judge, I would have immediately declared a mistrial.”