A punishment handed down to a Macon County man who streamed court proceedings on Facebook will stand–including a requirement that he write an essay about respecting the court system, post it on social media, and delete any negative comments it might provoke, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled.
In November 2018, Davin Eldridge, a local blogger, streamed court proceedings in Macon County via his cell phone despite warnings from a sign outside the courtroom and court security that recording the proceedings was prohibited. The trial judge, William Coward, told Eldridge to stop filming and return the courtroom later that day. Eldridge failed to return, and Coward issued a show-cause order for Eldridge to appear and show why he should not be held in contempt.
At the hearing, Coward found Eldridge guilty of criminal contempt and gave him a punishment that included ordering Eldridge to write 2,000 to 3,000 word essay, with the prompt: “Respect for the Court System is Essential to the Fair Administration of Justice” and post it on social media. Moreover, Coward required him to delete any negative comments that might others might make regarding the essay.
Eldridge appealed, arguing that Coward had erred by denying his motion for recusal at the hearing for contempt, finding him in criminal contempt of court, and issuing a probationary sentence that has unsupported by law. In a Dec. 3 opinion authored by Judge Wanda Bryant, the Court of Appeals rejected all of these arguments, although the panel was divided on the final issue.
Eldridge had argued that his actions did not disrupt the plea hearing in the ongoing criminal case nor were they calculated to do so, and that the most logical inference from the evidence was that he had accidentally turned on his phone and captured the video. Bryant noted that this argument was undercut by messages obtained from Eldrigde’s Facebook account, one of which said “Be prepared today for Trapp’s FB Live event in court … I’m prepared to go to jail for this by filming. If you can’t get in touch with me today, it’s because I was put in jail.”
Bryant wrote that the posts provided clear evidence that Eldridge had intentionally ignored instructions not to film court proceedings. (It is unclear from the court’s opinion what exactly Eldridge was filming, or why he was so intent on filming it that he was prepared to go to jail to do so.)
Bryant also noted that trial courts have substantial discretion to impose reasonable conditions of probation, and that the punishment handed down to Eldridge was appropriate in light of the circumstances.
“Given defendant’s questionable and intentional conduct, his frequent visits to the courtroom, and his direct willingness to disobey courtroom policies, we discern no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s decision to impose conditions on defendant’s probationary sentence,” Bryant wrote. “Such conditions are reasonably related to the necessity of preventing further disruptions of the court by defendant’s conduct, and the need to provide accountability without unduly infringing on his rights.”
Judge Christopher Brook dissented from the portion of the ruling finding no error with Eldridge’s sentence, saying that the requirement that Eldridge delete any negative comments made by third-parties on his essay bore no reasonable relationship to his rehabilitation or his crime and raised serious First Amendment concerns.
“It holds Defendant responsible for what is essentially the behavior of others; and while there is some truth to the adage that we are only as good as the company we keep, the relevant community in this context is incredibly diffuse, extending through cyberspace,” Brook wrote.
Zeyland McKinney in Murphy represented Eldridge. He could not be reached for comment.
The 17-page opinion is In re Eldridge (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-311-19). The full text of the opinion can be found at nclawyersweekly.com
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclwl