Judge furious over photo taken in court at Carollo trial, threatens attorney with prison time

Photo included member of media speaking with plaintiff’s attorney, and six other people

Commissioner Joe Carollo is being sued by two Miami businessmen

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A federal judge overseeing the civil trial of Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo sternly reprimanded defense attorneys on Wednesday over a photo that was included as part of a sealed document admitted to the court.

The photo, which showed a member of the media speaking to an attorney representing the two businessmen suing Carollo, had U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Smith using words like “reprehensible, “disrespectful,” and reminding the defense team of the penalty of possible prison time.

Taking pictures inside a federal courtroom is strictly prohibited.

“This is one of the most egregious, reprehensible, disrespectful actions you could make against this court. It requires prison time; we will see how that can be avoided,” Smith told the defense. “What happens here sets a precedent.”

There were six other people shown in the photo, which Smith said was taken by attorney Jesse Stolow, who is working for the defense team and had been attending hearings throughout the trial. Smith did not identify them.

Stolow said he took the photo because the judge had recently spoken to attorneys about talking to members of the media about the case. Stolow arrived in court on Wednesday with his own attorney who told the judge that he has been an attorney for only 13 months.

“Your honor, I am deeply sorry for my actions and the trouble I have caused this court,” Stolow said, adding that he forgot the rule about no recording or photography devices in court, that he would “never do it again,” and that he was unaware of its inclusion in the document.

Attorney Jesse Stolow is part of the defense team in the civil lawsuit filed by two Little Havana businessmen against Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo (Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC)

The judge, visibly furious, told the entire defense council that the actions crossed the line. “You have conducted yourself in a way that is beyond reprehensible,” said Smith.

Late in the day Wednesday, the judge ordered that six attorneys, including Stolow, along with Amber Dawson, Mason Pertnoy, Marc Sarnoff, Benedict P. Kuehne and Thomas Scott would be indefinitely barred from bringing any cellphones, cameras, or any other recording device into any courthouse in the Southern District of Florida.

Additionally, Stolow and Dawson were ordered that the photos taken, “whether electronic or paper in their possession or in the possession of others are destroyed.” Smith stated in the filing that each of the attorneys would be required to file a certification with the court as proof that they had complied.

The minimum penalty for taking photos inside a federal courtroom is technically 30 days in jail and $5,000, but if the judge decides to find the actions were in contempt, which is disobedience of an order of a court or tending to obstruct or interfere, 30 days “barely scratches the surface,” Smith said.

The judge told attorneys that he rarely loses sleep over cases, but that he had a tough night knowing he would address the photo incident the next day.

He brought up a case of a U.S. District Judge in New Jersey whose 20-year-old son was killed and her husband critically injured when someone rang the doorbell of the family home and shot them.

Smith said the photo incident was a “matter of safety.”

The judge took a 15-minute recess and then came back with his recommendation to Carollo’s attorneys: ethics training and two years of not practicing in the Southern District for all of the defense attorneys. He is giving them 30 days to respond and if an agreement cannot be reached, he would set a contempt hearing in 90 days.

The decision allowed the proceedings to continue with Carollo’s attorneys representing him.

The matter was brought up before jurors were summoned in the trial, which on Monday, entered into its sixth week.

The lawsuit has been brought against the commissioner by Miami businessmen Bill Fuller and Martin Pinilla after they say he violated their first amendment rights, allegedly using code compliance and other city departments to harass them and their companies simply because they supported his political opponent in 2017.

About the Author:

Michelle F. Solomon is a multi-platform producer/reporter for Local10 and is the podcast producer/reporter/host of the station's original, true-crime podcast The Florida Files and producer of Local10.com's DigiShorts.