California Courts Make Bold Move

gavel-0113Yesterday, the California Judicial Council, the policy making body of the California Judicial Branch, made an unprecedented and equally controversial move on the use of videoconferencing in courts. For the first time in the history of any justice system worldwide, the Council unanimously approved:

  • The use of videoconferencing in all traffic infraction trials
  • Adopted a Rule of Court to authorize all 58 California counties to conduct local pilot projects implementing this use of this technology

On the surface this may not appear like a very big announcement. Courts may be slower at adopting AV technology than other market sectors, but they are increasing their use and seeing the value in how technology reduces costs and improves procedural efficiencies — videoconferencing for arraignments, audio recording for transcripts, and document cameras (think Judge Ito in the OJ trial saying over and over “put it on the Elmo”). Assistive listening equipment for the hearing-impaired and language interpretation is actually required by law under the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Title 24 in California.

It’s unavoidable. The more technology makes its way into our everyday lives, the more it also showing up in the courtrooms as well. Historically though, the cost and burden has always been on the attorneys to bring in a projector and screen to display evidence.

There are three unique design elements anyone needs to consider when working on an AV project for a courthouse:

  1. It can’t be used as a weapon.
  2. It can’t be vandalized.
  3. It can’t be the reason an attorney uses to say his/her client’s due process rights were violated.

Numbers 1 and 2 are easy. Number 3 is where all the technology set-backs, access and fairness issues and potential legal challenges come into play. One of the founding tenants and constitutional rights we have in the United States justice system is the ability for a defendant to face his/her accuser. It is our fundamental right to fairness, justice and liberty as individual citizens. It’s also the most used reason opponents of the use of technology argue against the implementation of videoconferencing in court proceedings. And I have seen some incredibly poor installations where I don’t disagree.

And, it’s exactly why what California did yesterday is UNPRECEDENTED.

To my knowledge, videoconferencing has NEVER been authorized for use in an entire trial, worldwide. To our international readers, please let us know if you do hold entire trials by videoconference. It has only been used for first appearances or what are called arraignments. Simply put, an arraignment is when you enter your plea of not guilty or guilty. You then will be scheduled for your “day in court” if you plead not guilty. Therefore, it has typically been sufficient to say that no one’s due process is challenged by arraignment.  There are a few notable cases such as in Cook County, Ill., where it was determined the use of video for bail hearings was having a negative impact on defendants by seeing higher fees being handed out, and the court had to abandon the practice.

Second, and arguably more contentious is the Judicial Council creating a Rule of Court to authorize this use. Most, if not all use of technology is historically created through a Legislative Bill that creates a statute or law allowing the court to proceed. Whether or not this is sisterly love amongst the three branches of government or an actual requirement, I am not entirely sure. The Judicial Council specifically noted authorizing the pilot projects “…was consistent with their rule-making authority and not inconsistent with any existing statue or law.”  And, it is important to note the decision on whether or not to hold a video arraignment or trial is a voluntary option that lies solely with the defendant right to choose.  Time will tell whether this action by the Judicial Council does or does not sit well with the California Legislature.

This move by the California Judicial Council is born out of a serious need where courthouses are closing statewide due to on-going budget cuts and the need to provide access to justice is non-negotiable.  As in any sector of our market, when the economic climate is one of retraction and cost cutting exercises, technology is often looked to as a way for continuing to doing business.

How does this affect the AV industry? You’ve just conceivably received 58 eight new projects. What does your equipment or services offer this opportunity to deliver justice with limited resources?

Jennifer Willard is an international speaker on AV design and construction in courthouses and a blogger and podcast host for rAVe [Publications]. She is also the founder of Women in AV.