Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cameras in the Courtroom

A person is arrested in Sibley County and needs to appear before a judge within 36 hours.  I am assigned to another county – there is no judge in Sibley County within the time required.   In the “olden days”, when I was county attorney, I’d get into my car and drive to Glencoe.  The Sheriff would have the defendant transported there, too, to appear before the judge.  The hearing would take maybe 10 or 15 minutes.

Another person has attempted suicide and is hospitalized.  A petition for judicial commitment is filed, to require the person to obtain mental health treatment at a state hospital.  A preliminary hearing is required for the judge to consider whether there is enough evidence to continue with the commitment proceedings.  The patient is either transported the nearly two hours, one way, to the Sibley County Courthouse for the 15 minute hearing, or the judge, attorneys and court reporter make the trip to Willmar for the hearing.  Either way, it is a lot of time, expense and hassle for all involved.

Back in about 1997, Sibley County received permission from the Minnesota Supreme Court to conduct a trial on using interactive television for commitment hearings.  We were permitted to conduct those hearings for several months and then the program would be evaluated to see if it should be continued, expanded or halted. 

We found that, as expected, we had saved time and money for the system.  What surprised us all, however, was the evaluation from the Patient Advocate at the State Hospital that the program was a great benefit to the patients themselves!  They did not have to be placed in the back seat of an unmarked squad car for the ride to the courthouse, and then back again to the hospital.  The patient could remain in the normal treatment day with a 20-minute interruption for the hearing rather than 3-4 hours away.  And, the patient was actually more focused on the hearing because it was conducted by television.

The program was approved and made available for other counties.  Soon, other hearings were being conducted by ITV. 

Now, that person who was arrested would be walked over to the Sibley County Courthouse and I or another judge would sit in front of the camera in another courthouse and conduct the hearing before the time ran out.

There are limitations to the use of television for courts.  They can be difficult for the court reporter to accurately record.  They are not very efficient for longer trials and we certainly wouldn’t use it for a commitment hearing where the patient claims to receive messages through his television.  But, they do permit a judge to be much more efficient.

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Next week:  Intercontinental Television