Philadelphia police are investigating an anonymous Instagram account that outed dozens of witnesses to violent crimes, as first reported by the Inquirer. The account known as “rats215” posted police statements, evidence and even a photo of a witness that was apparently taken in court.
That’s got some people asking if cell phones should be barred from Philadelphia’s courtrooms.
Community College of Philadelphia professor Richard Frei, who studies witness intimidation, believes that cell phones should not be allowed inside the city’s courtrooms. Currently, phones have to be turned off and out of sight. Frei said visitors can easily break that rule and take photos of witnesses.
“I’m always amazed that they allow cell phones in those situations,” he said. “Having people not being able to contact outside people while a trial’s going on, I think it just seems [like] common sense.”
Court officials considered a cell-phone ban at the Criminal Justice Center earlier this year, but ultimately did not take action. First Judicial District spokesman Frank Keel said they are mulling a ban again in light of the “rats215” Instagram account.
“Even with the policy in place, we know there are still abuses happening, which is why we’re looking at the possibility of changing it altogether,” he said. “It’s virtually impossible to prevent people from quickly and surreptitiously taking photographs with their cell phones.”
Keel warns that cell-phone bans haven’t worked perfectly in other cities, though.
“It poses a logistical nightmare. Because inevitably, people simply don’t get the message,” he said. “They show up, they say, ‘What am I supposed to do now? I need to be in the courtroom.’ Then you have to make room and make space for lockers, and make sure that they’re secured.”
As for the “rats215” account, it is no longer accessible on Instagram.