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Should Courts Use Video Hearings?

W. Scott Cole

Posted on June 10, 2019 23:11

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More and more courts across the country use video hearings in an attempt to be more efficient in processing the accused through the system. It makes it easier to get a defendant in front of a judge, but is it the way the courts should work?

The way it works in the courts that use video hearings for a defendant’s first hearing, is that the judge sits in his courtroom, along with the prosecutor and the defense attorney. The defendant is taken to a secure area in the jail, which may be several miles away from the courtroom, and the entire process is conducted through closed circuit TV. It saves money by not requiring the police to transport defendants from the jail to the court. Instead they just walk them down a hallway to a room set up for the specific purpose of holding court hearings. It also saves time, because more defendants can be processed in a day. The video hearing room can be no more than a revolving door when transportation is not required.

The purpose of the video hearing is to determine the amount of bail as well as whether or not bail should even be granted. Each hearing takes just a few minutes, with each defendant having an audience of upwards of a dozen other people waiting for their turn in front of the camera.

The state and the judiciary would prefer that you accept their word that it is simple, easy, and every bit as good as having the defendant appear in person. In other words, “Don’t think about it, just take our word that it is what we tell you.”

Don’t think about the fact that in almost every case, the defense attorney is a public defender who knows nothing about the case until just a few minutes before the hearing when he gets the case file. Don’t think about the fact that the only person the defendant can see is the judge. He can’t see the prosecutor and he can’t see his own attorney. In fact, he can’t even talk to his attorney before the hearing.

Even when the microphones are working right, the prosecutor and/or the defense may not even turn their microphone on, or there is so much background noise and static that it drowns out the words.

The Constitution, through the Sixth Amendment, requires that a defendant in a criminal prosecution have representation. It also requires that a defendant be able to assist in his own defense. The question has to be asked: What kind of representation does a defendant have if he has never even met the person who will be representing him, much less had even a few minutes to discuss his case with that person. In that situation, how much has he been able to assist in his defense in that first crucial hearing?

Video hearings may indeed be efficient and cost effective, but are you able to see, as I can, the ways they can be improved? Can you see as well as I can the Constitutional issues this system creates? The courts don’t seem to be able to see them, and that is a major problem.

W. Scott Cole

Posted on June 10, 2019 23:11

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You'll be hearing a lot about criminal justice reform in the coming months.

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