Canton, Ohio, Municipal Court Judge Stephen F. Belden had an unconventional tool for silencing an argumentative defendant last week — duct tape. The unique confrontation played out in Municipal Court on Thursday and quickly became a topic of courthouse gossip. It was also recorded on the courtroom’s audio and video systems.
Municipal Court Judge Stephen F. Belden had an unconventional tool for silencing an argumentative defendant last week — duct tape.
The unique confrontation played out in Municipal Court on Thursday and quickly became a topic of courthouse gossip. It was also recorded on the courtroom’s audio and video systems.
Belden was holding a preliminary hearing to see if there was sufficient evidence for Harry Brown’s case to be reviewed by a county grand jury.
Charged with robbery and obstructing official business, Brown, 51, is accused of fighting with Wal-Mart security officers who said they were trying to keep him from shoplifting at the store Aug. 20.
At the start of the hearing, Brown told Belden that he wasn’t happy with his public defender, who he claimed hadn’t done enough work on the case.
Belden said he wasn’t going to appoint a different attorney. If Brown didn’t want the public defender, he could represent himself, although he would be a fool to do so, the judge said.
Brown and Belden went back and forth for about four minutes, at times talking over each other, until Belden told his bailiff, Jeffrey Smith, to get the duct tape.
“I’m gonna get some duct tape. If you keep interrupting me, I’m gonna have Mr. Smith put it over your mouth, OK?”
Brown said he would go back to the holding area for prisoners.
“No, you can’t go back there and sit. You’re staying right here,” Belden said.
Brown kept talking.
“All right, duct tape. Duct tape the defendant,” Belden said.
A second chance
With Brown muzzled, Belden told the public defender to sit in the audience, then ran the hearing.
After the police officer answered the prosecutor’s questions, Belden told his bailiff to remove the tape and asked Brown if he had any questions for the witness.
“We’ll put some more (tape) back on if you decide to, uh, go back to your former, uh, disrespectful ways,” the judge said.
“I’m not being disrespectful, Your Honor,” Brown said. “I think you’re being more disrespectful to me, as, you know ...”
He never got to ask a question, as the argument restarted.
“OK, that’s it, that’s it. Prelim is over. You’re bound over. I find probable cause. You can go back, down in the basement ...,” Belden said.
“I want to ask him some questions...”
“Yoooooouuuuuuu ... go ahead, take him away,” Belden said.
On the way out the door, Brown uttered obscenities.
“OK, you can get 30 more days on top of whatever you get, for contempt,” Belden told him.
The right call?
Court Administrator Michael Kochera said he doesn’t know of any other time when duct tape was used to silence a defendant in Municipal Court.
“When the judge orders any of the bailiffs to do something, we follow the orders,” said Smith, the bailiff.
Brown wants to file a complaint with the Supreme Court of Ohio and says his rights were violated.
“It was unethical. He didn’t have to do that,” Brown said Monday by phone from the Stark County Jail.
The duct tape covered his mouth, and when the bailiff peeled it off, it pulled out some of his mustache hairs, Brown said.
A spokesman for the Supreme Court of Ohio declined to comment on the issue.
The Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct says judges have to keep order in the courtroom. It also requires them to “be patient, dignified and courteous.”
Belden said he felt taping Brown’s mouth was the best way to restore order.
“You have somebody who’s disruptive, you have to make a decision on the spot how to handle it,” he said.
It was the first time in 12 years on the bench that Belden has ordered a defendant’s mouth to be taped. He said he learned of the technique from an out-of-state judge while they were attending a training seminar.
Aside from taping defendants’ mouths, judges in Municipal Court can try to reason with them, postpone the hearing, place them behind a glass window next to the courtroom or put them in a holding area where they can listen to the hearing but can’t participate, Belden said.
“I hope to never have to do it again,” he said of using duct tape. “It’s not something I get any enjoyment out of.”
The Canton Repository