Cellphone cameras are used almost everywhere these days — at concerts, children’s plays, sporting events, you name it. It’s almost impossible to find a public place where someone isn’t whipping out a phone to capture whatever earth-shattering image they desperately need at the moment.
But there’s still one sacred public space where cellphone cameras are not only prohibited, you could find yourself behind bars if you breach the no-camera rule: courtrooms.
That’s what happened to Henry Le last month in a Winnipeg courtroom. The 30-year-old snapped images with his cellphone of a gang-related homicide trial in September, while sitting in the public gallery. The five images included pictures of the co-accused in the case. A side image of a sheriff’s officer and the back of a Crown attorney could also be seen. When confronted by a sheriff’s officer in court, Le denied he was taking pictures and at first refused to hand over his cellphone. He then posted at least one of the images on Snapchat (a popular social media site) that included a mocking caption of the sheriff’s officer who asked him to turn over his phone.
The judge in the case threw the book at him and sentenced Le to 2 1/2 months in jail for contempt of court.
"A message has to be sent to the public that such behaviour will not be tolerated in our courtrooms and that thwarting the ability of sheriff’s officers to control the order and safety of the courtrooms will not be countenanced," Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Gerald Chartier wrote in a 12-page ruling.
Cameras are strictly prohibited in the Winnipeg Law Courts complex. Media are not allowed to shoot video or still pictures anywhere in the building, including in hallways (with the exception of one small area authorities have used from time to time for press conferences). The public is allowed to bring cellphones into courtrooms. But they can’t use them in any way, including texting or sending emails. Lawyers and accredited media are allowed to record audio in courtrooms, as well as transmit text, including to social media accounts such as Twitter. But taking pictures or video is strictly off-limits (and as we now see, aggressively enforced).
It’s not like people aren’t aware of the rules. There are signs posted around the Law Courts complex advising the public. They exist for good reason: they’re an important part of maintaining courtroom order and decorum, as well as protecting the personal safety of witnesses and jury members.
"Lawyers, witnesses and others present during a trial rightly expect that the order and safety of our courtrooms will be vigilantly maintained," Chartier wrote in a Dec. 5 ruling (he gave his oral judgment on Nov. 25).
"A message has to be sent to the public that such behaviour will not be tolerated in our courtrooms and that thwarting the ability of sheriff’s officers to control the order and safety of the courtrooms will not be countenanced." – Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Gerald Chartier
"Most members of the public are prospective jurors for our jury trials, and they have a right to fully expect that their safety and security will not be jeopardized when performing such a duty in our courts when called upon to do so."
Chartier said the jury trial included witnesses that had concerns about their safety. Le said he took the pictures because one of the co-accused was a friend of his. When Chartier got wind Le was snapping images, he demanded the man hand over his phone to sherrif’s officers. Le was arrested later that day.
"There are a number of aggravating circumstances in this case, including the complete and utter disrespect for the court’s authority in relation to Mr. Le’s conduct with the sheriff’s officers," wrote Chartier.
"It is really quite outrageous."
As for the sentence, neither the Crown nor the defence could find any precedent. The Crown asked for 90 days. The defence requested a conditional sentence. Chartier settled on 75 days in jail, less 11 days time served. He said Le didn’t qualify for a conditional sentence because he has a criminal record.
"The principle of general deterrence is an important consideration here," Chartier wrote. "This court must send a message that breaching the directive of the court and impeding the ability of sheriff’s officers to control the order and safety of the courtroom may result in a finding of criminal contempt and accompanying sanctions."
It was a tough sentence, but a necessary one.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.