T. Hess ... charged with intimidating a witness
T. Hess ... charged with intimidating a witness

Don't even think about taking a cellphone into the York County Judicial Center.

The rules are crystal clear that cellphones and other electronic devices able to record images or sounds are not allowed inside.

But the rule regarding such devices in district judge courtrooms is a little murky.

Each district judge decides whether to allow cellphones inside his or her courtroom, according to the York County Rules of Judicial Administration.

A court official said there are no plans to ban cellphones from all district judge courtrooms in the county, despite recent allegations that a teen used a cellphone during a preliminary hearing to photograph a confidential police informant, who police say became a target in a murder-for-hire plot.

G. Hess ... charged in two murder-for-hire plots
G. Hess ... charged in two murder-for-hire plots

"I wouldn't say one incident would cause it (the policy) to be changed," said Thomas Roberts, the county's deputy court administrator, adding the policy is always under review.

There's not a statewide ban on cellphones in common pleas or district judge courtrooms, leaving each county to decide the matter, said Art Heinz, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Office of Court Administration.

The incident: State police allege Toby Allen Hess, 18, of 1950 Hoff Road in North Codorus Township, secretly photographed the unnamed informant during the May 9 preliminary hearing for his father, Gregory Allen Hess.

Police say Gregory Hess was behind a prior murder-for-hire plot that targeted his wife's lover.


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Following the hearing, Toby Hess told his father he took the pictures, police said.

While in York County Prison, Gregory Hess approached an inmate, offering him $15,000 to kill the informant to be identified using the photographs, police say.

The elder Hess, who was free on $10 million bail, and his son were arrested last week. Gregory Hess, 46, also of 1950 Hoff Road, is charged with a second count of solicitation of criminal homicide stemming from the most recent incident.

He was denied bail and is back in prison.

Toby Hess, charged with intimidation of a witness, is free on $250,000 bail.

Toby Hess admitted to taking the pictures, telling investigators that he "made a big mistake by keeping the photo," according to his charging documents.

Unaware: District Judge Richard Martin II, who was on the bench for the hearing, said he didn't know the photographs were being taken.

"If I was aware someone was taking photographs, I would have stopped it," he said.

Though cellphones aren't banned statewide, taking photographs inside any courtroom in the state is, Heinz said.

There are, however, some exceptions, such as during ceremonies, like weddings, and some hearings, like non-criminal ones.

Heinz said the state Supreme Court creates rules for the state's court system and could disallow cellphones from all courtrooms. However, there are no plans to do so.

Judges can confiscate cellphones if they cause an interruption during proceedings.

"I think it's clear ... if it's some sort of disruption, the court has every right to take the cellphone," he said.

Bans: At least one district judge in York County doesn't allow cellphones in his courtroom.

Even though he doesn't have to, Judge John H. Fishel said he banned the phones to adhere to the same rules the York County Court of Common Pleas follows.

"If you can't use (a cellphone in a courtroom), you shouldn't have it," he said.

In York County, attorneys, first responders and county employees are allowed to have cellphones in courtrooms and additional exceptions to the rule can be made.

Fishel added the alleged incident involving Toby Hess is an example of what could happen when cellphones are allowed in courtrooms.

"I understand the rights of the public. It (the court system) should be open," Fishel said.

But there are some instances when the devices could intimidate witnesses or victims. For example, Fishel said victims of sex offenses might be leery of coming forward to report crimes for fear someone could use a cellphone to take a picture during a hearing.

"In this day and age (of social media), people and witnesses can easily be intimidated," he said.

If the ban would include the district courtrooms, it could be difficult to enforce. Unlike the York County Judicial Center, there aren't metal detectors in district court, Martin said.

However, those caught with a cellphone could be charged with contempt of court, Fishel said.

With the issue still at the discretion of each district judge, Martin said he's not going to make a knee-jerk decision.

"I want to hear the evidence first then make a decision," he said. "You can't make that kind of decision without the evidence."

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.