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March 7, 2005 at 2:07 pm #17314detn8rParticipant
Bucks courts embrace time-saving technology
By Harry Yanshak, Bucks County Courier Times
Bucks County district courts want to jump into the video age.
If plans materialize, defendants won't have to stand in a courtroom to hear criminal charges. Instead, they'll sit in a police station and face a computer screen to see a district judge miles away.
Two district courts have received Web cameras and computers for video conferencing criminal proceedings. The county plans to equip all district courts with the technology and connect them with police stations that also have a camera-and-computer setup.
“It'll be neat to use once it gets going,” District Judge Frank Peranteau said as he clicked on MSN Messenger and opened a video conference with Charles Carey Jr., the county's deputy court administrator for the minor judiciary. On this try, the camera worked, but the audio didn't.
Peranteau's Bristol courtroom and District Judge Kay DuBree's court in Nockamixon are the test sites.
“Right now we're learning how to turn it on and turn it off and how to talk to each other,” DuBree said from her Upper Bucks courtroom.
There's no date set to launch Web-cam court, Carey said, though its first use most likely would be for night, holiday and weekend arraignments. Video conferencing promises to reduce costs in prisoner transportation and bookkeeping and improve court efficiency, Carey said, though the county hasn't estimated how much could be saved.
For police, the technology eliminates the need to travel to district court for an after-hours arraignment, and it could substantially reduce the time required to wait for the on-call judge, said Quakertown Police Chief Scott McElree, who used video conferencing as a police officer in Whitemarsh, Montgomery County.
Now, an on-call judge in Bucks holds after-hours arraignments as needed every four hours, starting at 8 p.m. But if the technology allows arraignments to be held whenever necessary, the officer can, theoretically, finish his paperwork, arraign the defendant at the station and then return to the street, McElree said.
“Ideally,” the chief said, video conferencing would work best should Bucks establish a regional booking center for police – where a defendant would be photographed, fingerprinted, checked for criminal history and then arraigned through a Web cam linked to the on-call judge.
Warwick Police Chief Joseph Costello, a past president of the Bucks County Police Chiefs Association, said the association's communications advisory committee intends to map out how police could use the technology.
“If used properly, this could be a tremendous savings,” Costello said, noting the cost of setting up the system ranges from about $120 to $1,000, depending on the equipment a police department already has.
“I'm confident that we're going to use it in the future. Now, it's just a matter of working out the logistics.”
Video conferencing – a two-way, high-speed, Internet-delivered communications system – is used in many states, not only for arraignments but also for other routine criminal proceedings. Federal and state courts have upheld the use of video conferencing in courtrooms. And in 1998, Pennsylvania law allowed the technology for criminal arraignments, according to the state Commission on Crime and Delinquency.
Video conferencing has saved money, reduced transportation costs and improved courtroom efficiency, according to a 2000 report on six Pennsylvania counties, including Montgomery.
The Web cam delivers a live video feed of a defendant at a police station or prison to the judge's computer screen. The two can have an on-camera talk at an arraignment, during which charges are read, bail is set and a preliminary hearing is scheduled. Fax machines would transmit all paperwork.
The model for Bucks' move to video conferencing is Westmoreland County, which has about as many municipalities as Bucks, but twice the land, half the population and one-third the population density. Westmoreland, in southwestern Pennsylvania, started to use the technology in July.
Each district court has a laptop and Web camera that costs about $1,500. And each court can reach, via high-speed Internet link, 22 of the county's 41 police departments. More departments are expected to use video conferencing, but some smaller departments have opted to take defendants to the nearest equipped department.
Westmoreland County officials and district judges say taxpayers are saving money, though a tally hasn't been done. District judges have welcomed the technology as a time saver, said Donald Heagy, court administrator for Westmoreland County President Judge Daniel Ackerman.
“The quality of the picture is very good. You're not seeing some fuzzy person on the screen,” said District Judge James Falcon of Youngwood in Westmoreland County. “The difficulty in not seeing the defendant face to face is one of the shortcomings of the system, but that's hardly a reason to go back to our old system.”
Neither Peranteau nor DuBree said they would miss the in-person arraignment. Peranteau said one bonus of video conferencing is he could save on-camera arraignments as computer files.
“I don't have a concern for that loss of one-on-one interaction,” DuBree added, noting that sometimes police are reluctant to bring a belligerent defendant into the courtroom and some defendants have tried to harm judges. Keeping a defendant at the police station is safer for everyone, she said.
But one defense attorney and the state Commission on Crime and Delinquency said video conferencing is impersonal.
“The technology prevents [defendant and judge] from fully reproducing the social dynamics and non-verbal communication that occur during face-to-face meetings,” the commission said in its study.
That's why a criminal arraignment is no place for the technology, argued defense attorney Richard Fink.
Video conferencing is “too impersonal,” to use during a criminal arraignment, he said. “That's where bail is set.”
Fink believes the technology doesn't serve the client's best interest.
“If I have a client who has to whine and beg and plead for his liberties, I don't want him to do it before a TV screen,” Fink said, adding the judge should face the defendant, and possibly the defendant's family, in court. “For the judge, it's very easy for him to say, ‘No, you're going to jail,' to a TV screen because the person is already incarcerated at a police station.”
Defense attorney Louis Busico disagreed, saying he has no problem with the technology. He said family members could show up at the district court, to either plead for the client's freedom or pay the bail, which must be done in person. He said it's the lawyer's responsibility, not the client's, to beg the judge for the client's release.
“From the attorney's perspective, I'm still going to make my argument before the judge,” even though the defendant is at the police station, Busico said.
“I've done many arraignments by closed-circuit TV and never felt hindered by the process,” he said.
Constables, however, say they need to be included in the plan to introduce video conferencing. Their work includes transporting defendants to the county prison following an arraignment. Constables say they don't want the technology to prolong their trip to the prison, which could happen if they're required to collect defendants at police stations instead of one on-call court.
Longer-than-usual trips could result if constables have to visit each police department that arraigned a suspect before the on-call judge, constables say.
“You don't want to spend more time with these people. You want to make this an expeditious trip,” said Charles Benhayon, a constable for 14 years and the vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency's education and training board for state constables.
“When you have to jump around from police department to police department, that's a safety factor to us because we're traveling through the county with prisoners,” said John Cronon, president of the Bucks County Constables Association.
In Montgomery County, large police departments such as Abington (92 officers) have the technology not only to handle on-camera arraignments for smaller departments in the county but also machines that can digitally process and transmit photographs and fingerprints into criminal databases. In minutes, police can have fingerprints and photographs matched with a defendant's criminal record. Because it has such technology, Abington and other large departments serve as a central booking center for defendants, Deputy Chief John Livingood said.
Video arraignments are time-savers because defendants never have to leave the police station to see the judge, Livingood said. “If we had to take a person to see the judge in person … that would effectively take two officers out of service for at least a couple of hours,” he said, noting the length of time could be longer if the on-call judge is located across the county.
In Montgomery County, police and deputy sheriffs, rarely constables, shuttle defendants to the county prison, said District Judge Paul Leo, whose court in Hatboro has used video conferencing for about two years.
While the technology enables a judge to do work from home, that's not how it's being used in his courtroom, he said, noting how the courts should remain open to the public, regardless if the proceeding is captured on a computer screen.
The only drawback to the system is Leo has only one fax machine. This can cause a backup if more than one police department wants to arraign a defendant, Leo said, adding the county plans to equip the courts with inbound and outbound faxes.
But if the system shuts down “you've got troubles,” Leo said.
Waiting for the faxes is the most time-consuming part of the arraignment, he said. But the video arraignment itself is “clean and surgically done.”
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