To go to court in Colorado these days, you may have to go through courthouse, park, security – Belts and watches off, please – Put on a mask (or maybe not) and put your seat on a seat. Or you can just curl up on your couch, power up the laptop, and log into a video chat for a virtual courtroom.
It all depends on which judge is hearing your case and what exactly you need to do.
Colorado’s initially ubiquitous use of virtual courts during the pandemic has faded into a patchwork of judge-by-judge decisions when proceedings proceed in person or online, even as some in the justice system Calls to preserve virtual options – Covid.
The mix of procedures follows a radical change of the court system across the state since the pandemic began in March 2020, as the public health crisis forced an unprecedented shift toward remote hearings and virtual appearances – thereby reducing Increased transparency and participation. some new difficulties.
The Colorado Supreme Court has yet to provide any detailed statewide guidance on how virtual courts should be used over a long period of time, but Chief Justice Brian Boatwright recently formed a working group of eight chief justices to investigate See how online courts work (and when they don’t) as a precursor to potential long-term strategies, said Weld County Chief Justice James Hartman, who co-chairs the Chief Justice’s Council.
“What kinds of proceedings is Webex doing well, and where are the challenges facing court users?” He said of the Colorado Court System’s online video platform. “Once we have that information, we can next consider where we go from here as far as long-term plans.”
The committee, which includes chief justices from rural and urban judicial districts, will seek input from lawyers, court staff and other stakeholders in the justice system before presenting its findings to Boatwright, Hartmann said. He estimated that the process could take 30 to 60 days.
“We want to be able to use Webex when Webex is an effective way of conducting court proceedings,” Hartmann said. “We certainly don’t want to trade convenience for anyone’s due process rights. But that balance will be — we can certainly strike a balance, we just don’t know where the needle is going to fall.”
Earlier this year, Boatright empowered chief justices to create policies on virtual attendance for each of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts, giving local courts a pandemic-long approach to the court system making their own rules within a broader framework. continued to. The Denver Post’s review of those policies shows that many chief justices delegated decision-making to individual judges.
Whether court hearings take place online or in person is left to the discretion of each judge in the eight judicial districts, of which two districts encourage online presence and three insist on in-person proceedings, the review found. .
“We don’t have a set protocol, we play it by ear,” said Joan Monteiro, clerk of the courts in the third judicial district, which includes Huerfano and Las Animas counties. “We recently had a COVID outbreak in prison, so we moved cases to Webex for that reason.”
The other six judicial districts operate entirely online or with the presumption that hearings will take place remotely. Three districts are the opposite – hearings are assumed to proceed in person unless there is an exception – and in two districts, chief justices have issued specific policies on how and when virtual courts should be used. . The three districts have no policies posted online and have not returned a request for comment from the post.
“I think we all want a little more guidance from the chief justices and statewide,” said Denver Assistant District Attorney Zack McCabe. “If we know all the rules it becomes easier for everyone to work.”
Massive changes in virtual court
David Slayton, vice president of Court Consulting Services at the National Center for State Courts, said there was a massive shift from in-person court to virtual court during the pandemic.
“We found that we can actually conduct any type of proceedings remotely in any type of case,” he said. “I’m not arguing that it’s always the best way, but it can be done, and we did it.”
According to data provided by the judicial branch, Colorado courts ranged from spending $61,000 on 250 licenses for Webex in the 2020 fiscal year to $338,000 on 4,000 licenses in the 2022 fiscal year.
“The most surprising thing we learned is that we have seen an increase in the level of access to justice,” Slayton said.
When the courts in Arizona went online, eviction cases in one county shifted from seeing a 40% no-show rate – 40% of people were evicted without being heard in court – to a 13% no-show rate, The 90-page report was submitted to the Arizona Supreme Court in June. Across the country, virtual jury calls have seen a 60% to 90% response rate, when in-person jury calls are typically around 40%, Slayton said.
“It shows that there are barriers to access to justice that exist outside the pandemic, such as transportation, child care, the ability to get out of work,” Slayton said.
Unsurprisingly, Colorado saw a similar increase in participation with virtual courts, especially when links to online courtrooms were readily available to defendants, those in the justice system told The Post, although they had not reviewed hard data. .
During the height of the pandemic in Mesa County, defendants in misdemeanor and traffic cases received a reminder text on the morning of their court date that included a link to the correct virtual courtroom, said Steve Chin, manager of criminal justice services.
“So they could just click on that link,” he said.
According to the National Center for State Courts, state courts in Alaska, Massachusetts, Florida, Idaho, Indiana and Iowa have issued some statewide rules regarding what proceedings can and cannot be taken. In the summer of 2020, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators, which represent state courts in all 50 states, announced that courts should adopt a “remote-first or remote-friendly” approach.
“We can’t turn our backs on all the progress we’ve seen during the pandemic,” Slayton said.
Many in Colorado’s justice system would like to see some kind of hybrid virtual-and-in-person future for the courts.
Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty said, “It makes a lot of sense to continue allowing virtual presences, especially for small attendances.” “It would save time and money by giving individuals the option of appearing virtually.”
Weld County Chief Justice Hartman said, “This is a huge time and cost saver for many types of proceedings – short hearings, status conferences, trial preparation conferences – it works very well for those types of proceedings. Is.”
Still, virtual courts can make it difficult for lawyers to speak privately with their clients, and all this eliminates the informal hallway talks between prosecutors and defense attorneys that are used to resolve many low-level cases. important, which can be as long as five minutes. Conversations in long email exchanges or back-and-forth phone calls.
Maureen Cain, director of legislative policy and external communications, said, “The attorney-client relationship becomes a bit brief, and diminishes when you’re not able to stand next to your client in the courtroom and be the client’s voice. ” Colorado State Public Defender’s Office.
He added that public defenders also require their customers to fill out and sign paperwork, which can be difficult when they’re not in the same room, especially if customers have stable living conditions and a postal address. Not there.
Prosecutors have also seen cases prolong during the pandemic, Dougherty and McCabe said, in part because defendants did not face tough deadlines to enter plea agreements when jury trials due to COVID-19 restrictions. stalled, and partly because of virtual appearances.
“People are less likely to trust a defense attorney they’ve never met in person and are willing to plead guilty from the couch of their living room,” Dougherty said.
greater public transparency
But accessing the justice system from home is not limited to defendants. Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said members of the public and victims of crime can enhance court transparency even remotely.
“It’s made it easier for the public to see the criminal justice system in progress, and I think that’s a good thing,” Roberts said. “It has also made it easier for journalists to cover the process in some cases.”
Additionally, some victims prefer to watch proceedings from home, prosecutors said, rather than sit a foot away from the person accused of murdering their loved one or make the long journey to a shorter trial.
Currently, online streaming of proceedings in-person for full public access is unpredictable in Colorado courtrooms.
In September, a judge in the high-profile Letesia Stoch murder case in El Paso County allowed only pre-approved family members of victim Gannon Stauch to watch an important hearing online — everyone else had to show up in person.
The sentencing hearing of Mark Redwine, convicted of murdering his son Dylan, scheduled for Friday, was open online for anyone to view and even rebuff but in the Barry Morphew murder case in Chaffee County. For the preliminary hearing, there is a complete ban on the courtroom for virtual viewing.
In the Morpheu case, Chief Justice Patrick Murphy cited “enormous public interest” as a reason not to stream the hearing online. He noted that more than 1,100 people tuned in to watch the pre-trial broadcast in the case, and that some viewers had “inappropriate” conversations using the streaming service’s chat feature.
“Broadcasting the proceedings via Webex is likely to see the hearing of thousands of people,” he wrote in an August order. “This appears to defeat the purpose of limiting extended media coverage in criminal cases. Those purposes include, not infringing on the rights of parties to a fair trial, not detracting from the dignity and dignity of the court, and the adverse Not creating an impact that would be greater due to traditional media coverage.”
Public access to the Morphew hearings was limited to 24 people, with proceedings flowing into mostly empty overflow rooms across the city in Salida.
Best practices for using Webex for public access need further study, Hartman said, noting that courts’ specific restrictions on photography and recording when proceedings are streamed online are difficult to enforce.
McCabe said prosecutors at the Denver District Attorney’s office are divided over the issue of online streaming. Some are against it, he said, because of how widespread it is one can easily and anonymously tune in.
“Others, I think, would agree with the idea that we have public courts, so anyone can come down and watch what they want, and this,” he said of streaming, “is now a public court. th century version.”