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How technology is changing the court system during the pandemic

Technology has allowed courts to push forward but judges still prefer in-person over virtual hearings

Jun 24, 2020 at 7:00 am
    Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden listens Monday at a plea hearing for defendant Drew Wagner at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids. The in-person hearing came with health restrictions including social distancing, and the use of a livestream video of the proceeding carried by local media because of the high public interest in the case. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

    To keep cases moving for defendants and victims during the coronavirus pandemic, Iowa judges have been turning toward technology — and away from as many in-person court hearings as possible.

    For the first time, defendants can file a plea and be sentenced in writing without a hearing; hearings in criminal, civil and juvenile cases can be conducted by phone or video conference; and any hearings that need to be conducted in-person must abide by social distancing and, possibly, face mask requirements.

    If a defendant in a criminal case doesn’t waive his or her right to an in-person hearing, then it must be bumped to a later date.

    In the 6th Judicial District, which includes Linn, Johnson, Benton, Iowa, Jones and Tama counties, judges mostly are conducting hearings by phone because the capability for video conferencing is limited.

    In the Linn County Courthouse, for instance, there is only one computer connected to the county jail, which the associate district judges and magistrates use for initial appearances.

    Kellee Cortez, District Court administrator, said officials looked into getting another link to the jail for one of the big courtrooms in the courthouse, but it was too expensive. However, in March each of the judges was given a dedicated conference call line for phone hearings.

    Steve Davis, Iowa judicial branch communications director, said the other seven districts in Iowa are also using the conference call system, but some use video, too. A few judges have used the combination of phone and video in certain hearings where some of the parties involved didn’t have video capability and participated by phone instead, he said.

    The 7th District, which includes Scott and Clinton counties, is using more video conferencing because it has three courtrooms with built-in video capability that normally are used to conduct initial appearances from jails, Davis said.

    In the 5th District — which is Polk County — a judge recently conducted a divorce trial by video.

    Cortez noted the 6th District seems to be holding more hearings in serious felony cases over the phone than do other districts. But most judges still prefer to conduct in-person hearings when they involve violence, such as for charges related to serious assaults, murder and robberies involving a weapon. Many of those hearings are being reset to later.

    Logistics of murder plea during shutdown

    Judge Ian Thornhill decided to go ahead with a hearing two weeks ago for Andre Richardson, who pleaded to lesser charges in the fatal shooting of two 18-year-olds on May 18, 2019 outside a Cedar Rapids smoke shop.

    Thornhill said he worked with court administration to see if an in-person hearing was possible because it had been pending over a year. He decided to limit who could be in the main courtroom to allow for social distancing, but also made provisions for an overflow courtroom for additional family of the victims.

    Cortez and Davis then worked with The Gazette, KCRG-TV and Randy Evans, executive director of Iowa Freedom of Information Council, to provide a livestream of the hearing. Even though the courthouse had largely been closed to the public since late March, there was a great deal of public interest in seeing the proceeding.

    6th Judicial District Judge Christopher Bruns also followed the same plan for Drew Wagner, 34, of Cedar Rapids, who pleaded to lesser charges Monday in the fatal stabbing of Chris Bagley, 31, of Walker.

    Davis said he has talked with Evans about using the hearings as a template for other districts to follow for high profile cases during this COVID-19 time.

    Like in Iowa, courts around the country are using technology to keep courts open in some way during the pandemic.

    In Michigan, for instance, all hearings are conducted by video and the public can view them live or later on YouTube.

    According to the Michigan Supreme Court, nearly 1,000 judges and court officers have Zoom licenses, and over 100,000 hours of hearings have been conducted remotely since April 1.

    The courts of March

    Thornhill was the first judge here to deal with the virus crisis in March as presiding criminal judge, He was determined to use the technology available to keep cases moving forward as much as possible.

    He started conducting bail reviews and taking guilty pleas by phone and in writing in class D felonies when the Iowa Supreme Court allowed that possibility.

    Now three months later, he says accepting pleas in writing may be more efficient than holding hearings for lesser charges such as for drunken driving, burglary and theft. He said he wouldn’t have an issue if that continues after the crisis or if the phone and video hearings remain an option.

    Thornhill said while phone and video proceedings work, he doesn’t feel it could altogether replace in-person hearings. Some defendants may not take the process seriously if they don’t have interaction with a judge.

    It’s also difficult for judges to gauge demeanor and remorse of a defendant they can’t see over a phone, he noted. What defendants say or how they act may change his ruling in some instances.

    Sixth District Judge Kevin McKeever said he is more comfortable conducting video hearings in a civil case where both parties are represented by lawyers and agree on the terms. Or even a sentencing hearing for a property crime where there is an agreement on punishment.

    A concern about longer, contested hearings by phone is they make it difficult for the court reporter and judge to identify who is talking, especially if people interrupt each other and talk over one another.

    “I think the bottom line is we are just starting to explore these options, and a great deal of discussion is needed before we can reach any conclusions regarding what we should embrace as a matter of practice when it comes to doing hearings by teleconference or video,” McKeever said.

    Sixth District Judge Mary Chicchelly said she has been working remotely from her home because she has been assigned to the rural counties during the pandemic, and those courthouses have limited access to technology.

    This month, she is handling the Tama County docket and she started doing video hearings for defendants who are not in jail pending trial. County Attorney Brent Heeren prefers to use Zoom and got her to try it. It’s easily accessible to most people with a smartphone, she said.

    She prefers, however, to conduct any sentencings by video, if not in person. Agreeing with Thornhill, she said it helps her to be able to assess the defendant’s demeanor and credibility.

    Another downside to phone or video hearings is that a victim’s impact statement could have less effect on the defendant, Chicchelly said.

    Overall, Chicchelly said she hopes they can continue to use some of the technology in the “new normal.” But its use now is necessary to keep people safe and keep the courts moving, she added.

    Judge Fae Hoover, who handles the Linn County Drug Court, said the parties are mostly doing phone meetings and hearings because not all the offenders have video capability on their phones or have access to a computer.

    “Incentive for the clients is that they don’t have to come to as many meetings; but now, they want to come in and have that contact,” Hoover said.

    Most of the 22 offenders in the program are doing well, but some have struggled during this time because of job and income loss.

    “It’s challenging to stay in recovery while having to be isolated at home,” Hoover said.

    Many of the drug court participates have joined online support groups, since the court’s in-person peer support group meetings stopped.

    Next week they hope to have limited in-person meetings at one of the probation offices, which has COVID-19 building restrictions in place.

    They also want to restart the peer support group meetings at the probation office, Hoover said.

    Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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