Seven months ago, Raleigh immigration attorney Beckie Moriello was looking at her cell phone during an asylum hearing in Charlotte. And for that, she's now looking at the possibility of fines—or even jail time.
Moriello is being prosecuted for failing to comply with a judge's orders to stop using her phone and for disrupting the performance of government employees' official duties. On Thursday, a judge is expected to hear a motion filed by her attorney seeking to dismiss the case.
Moriello doesn't deny that she used her cell phone in the back row of Judge Barry Pettinato's court while observing an asylum hearing on June 29. But she does argue that a directive from the Executive Office of Immigration Review allows attorneys to use cell phones in court for business purposes and that they do so frequently—making the regulations she is accused of violating vague and arbitrary.
The attorney says a security guard approached her during the hearing and asked her to stop using her cell phone. The first time, she responded that she was using the phone for work. The second time, Moriello refused her demand again, skeptical that Pettinato would ask the guard to deliver the order rather than make it himself. The third time, the guard returned with a Charlotte cop, and she was escorted to an office elsewhere in the building.
Since then, Moriello has been in court twice and must check in with officials regularly, including for permission to travel out of state. Both sides say the case has gone too far.
"There's no doubt that this is a waste of resources," Moriello says. "This is my tax money that is paying for them to prosecute me for sitting silently in the back of the court staring at my lap."
She feels singled out. Pettinato has chided her before, she says, for "bringing weak cases and wasting the court's time." While the directive allowing attorneys to use their phones in court for work gives the judge discretion to order otherwise, Moriello says it's "really allowing the judge to cherry-pick who he's going to stop."
But the government says the case is clear-cut. Moriello not only disregarded signs prohibiting the use of electronic devices and subsequent orders by a judge but also "created a disturbance," according to court documents. Moriello's attorney is seeking audio of the hearing (and the alleged disturbance), but the U.S. attorney on the case says it's confidential.
"This case could not be simpler, yet Defendant has made much of it," wrote assistant U.S. attorneys Corey Ellis and Daniel Bradley in response to a motion to dismiss the case as unconstitutionally vague and a violation of the Constitution's Separation of Powers clause. "... It is past time for this petty offense case to proceed to trial." (The Executive Office of Immigration Review declined to comment on pending litigation.)
Each charge carries a penalty of fines, up to thirty days' imprisonment, or both. Moriello may also face repercussions from the North Carolina State Bar. The association's Rules of Professional Conduct broadly say lawyers can be subject to discipline if they commit a crime "that reflects adversely on the lawyers honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects" or engage conduct to the same effect.
"I'm not going to lose my license over this, but they could reprimand me," Moriello says.