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May 10, 2011

Are more video court appearances (and eventually cyber-courts) inevitable as cost-cutting innovation?

This new AP article, headlined "Courts nationwide hold hearings with video," highlights how tight budgets are leading to new types of court appearances.  Here are some of the specifics:

George Villanueva, charged with first-degree murder in the death of an NYPD officer, will not leave jail for months of pretrial hearings.  Instead, he'll be beamed into the courtroom via video as lawyers discuss his case in front of the judge.

Villanueva's case is part of a surge in court appearances done by video in New York and around the country, as cash-strapped communities look for ways to boost efficiency and cut costs. The tools are used in courts large and small, and the savings for some are staggering: $30 million in Pennsylvania so far, $600,000 in Georgia, and $50,000 per year in transportation costs in Ohio....

Advocates say the virtual hearing is easier on defendants, who don't have to get up at 4 a.m. to be shuttled with other criminal suspects to court, only to wait hours standing and handcuffed for an appearance.  Judges say their cases are moving faster.  And civil liberties groups say the practice raises no red flags.

"The technology is really exploding. It's gotten much cheaper and easier to run, and states are reporting a huge range of savings," said Jim McMillan of the National Center for State Courts, which studied the use of video in courts in the U.S.

About 166 court systems — or more than half the country's — responded to the group's survey six months ago.  The survey found that video use has vastly increased in the past five years. Initial appearances, mental health hearings and status conferences are among the most frequently conducted via video, according to the survey.

The video systems vary in cost but are all built on the same principles: A webcam or video camera is used in the courtroom, and a station is set up at the jail or detention center where suspects are held.  Defendants go to a secure room and appear via a secure Internet connection....

In 2008, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts began a three-year initiative to provide video conferencing equipment, and more than 400 courts have it.  Court officials estimate that it will save about $20 million annually statewide on security and transportation costs.  Philadelphia alone has reported a savings of more than $30 million over five years.

It's not just about the savings.  In Oregon's Multnomah County, which includes Portland, court officials have set up a closed-link system at a domestic violence shelter where women can apply for a protective order from their abusers without having to risk leaving the safe house.  Utah uses the video to deliver classroom training for clerk staff and to hold meetings, saving some employees five-hour drives.

At least 750 statutes govern the practice.  In some places, like New York, the defendant must consent to holding hearings this way.  Others don't require consent but need a judge's ruling.

May 10, 2011 at 09:24 AM | Permalink

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This is particularly true in big states. In Oregon, most of the prison population is in the eastern third of the state, 4-5 hour drive from the main population centers in west. So for every post-conviction relief proceeding, the state had to pay their lawyer to drive from Salem to Pendleton or whatever (obviously you could do a number of hearings in one trip, but the cost was still substantial). Now the whole thing is set up so they can do the trial from a courtroom in Salem with the inmate/plaintiff appearing via video link. It is a little disconcerting when the appointed lawyer is from the Salem area so you have all the suits in one room and the guy in an orange jumpsuit on the screen, but that's a different issue.

Posted by: Christopher Mommsen | May 10, 2011 9:46:03 AM

Christopher,

I don't think the SCOTUS is going to go for routinely having the defendant appear via video for the actual trial. At least one federal circuit has ruled (correctly, I think) that a state can't use video for parole hearings. These jurisdictions had best be very careful lest they end up having to redo a huge amount of work.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 10, 2011 9:59:05 AM

Yeah I agree. There needs to be a fair bit more guidance on this stuff. Ultimately for post-conviction cases though, the states seem to have a fair bit of deference in how they go about it. That isn't the case for trials and apparently parole hearings.

Posted by: Christopher Mommsen | May 10, 2011 11:06:05 AM

Well, given that an offender doesn't even generally have a right to competent counsel for collateral attacks (excepting death penalty cases?) I see no reason that they would have a right to be present. Is there even a legal requirement that there be any sort of personal right of appearance for such proceedings, or is being able to file the paperwork enough?

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 10, 2011 1:49:49 PM

can't speak for what the law is generally, but in NJ, there is a constitutional right to counsel in the petitioner's first post-conviction motion. there is also a constitutional right to appear at any evidentiary hearings in that proceeding. And there is a practice of appointing counsel in second and subsequent post-conviction motions in NJ.

Posted by: = | May 10, 2011 2:47:15 PM

as long as the system is 100% two-way and there is a way for the defendant to confur "PRIVATELY" with thier attorney the state would be on good legal ground!

otherwise it's criminal!

Posted by: rodsmith | May 10, 2011 10:52:19 PM

The Supreme Court refused to cert a case that would have answered whether video testimony satisfies the Confrontation Clause, even with opportunity to cross examine. Video testimony by child abuse victims or sick elderly patients who could not travel have formed the basis of several appeals. This is a matter for the legislative branch, and is too important to leave to the common law.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 11, 2011 12:07:57 AM

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