Boulder County attorneys on lessons learned from virtual hearings as in-person court resumes

·6 min read

Jun. 12—While Boulder County has resumed most in-person criminal hearings, attorneys said there are still lessons to be learned and uses for the remote hearing system that was used during the coronavirus pandemic.

The 20th Judicial District halted in-person hearings in March 2020, and while trials and some select other hearings took place in person, most criminal court proceedings took place virtually over the WebEx platform, with attorneys, defendants and spectators tuning in remotely while a judge sat in their chambers.

While it did sometimes lead to confusion for defendants and the occasional hold music blaring through the courtrooms, attorneys agreed that for the most part the county was able to adapt well to remote hearings.

"I was pleased we made the transition as smoothly as we did," Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty said.

Boulder managing public defender Nicole Collins said it was also good to know that the courts are capable of doing remote hearings and have a system in place should the need arise in the future.

"Whereas before it seemed like a very challenging task, now all the agencies are pretty adept," Collins said. "We all got a crash course in technology at the same time, so it was good in that sense."

'Expanded public access'

Collins said she thinks there are certain instances in which remote hearings still make sense. She noted that remote hearings made things much easier for defendants who were in custody in other jurisdictions, especially for those in prison.

"That's not to say all of them, but a large majority in the Department of Corrections don't like to be transported back and forth," Collins said. "They lose their spots, they might lose belongings, it creates a host of problems for them."

Added Collins, "For them being able to appear remotely is a great benefit to them, especially if they can resolve their cases remotely. I know most of those clients have really appreciated that."

Dougherty said in addition to defendants having that preference, not having to constantly transport them also eases a burden on the system.

"When you think about the time that the defendant is in custody, the cost, the transportation, the gas, the impact on the roads and the environment, when we can just have the person appear virtually, especially for a short court appearance, virtual hearings will continue to play a really valuable role in the justice system," Dougherty said.

Collins also said she hopes defendants who live out of state and have transportation issues will be able to use the remote system to avoid picking up failure to appear warrants. She noted her office had a defendant from Hawaii who had a warrant out, who was able to resolve his case once hearings went remote.

"He never would have been able to fly back and forth for court dates, even for one," Collins said. "When everything went remote he reached out and tried to resolve it, which I think happened in a number of different cases."

Dougherty also noted airing court proceedings online is also useful for friends and family of those involved in cases who live outside of Colorado, or even members of the public who want to see how the justice system operates or monitor a case of interest.

"The ability for us to hold court proceedings virtually has expanded public access and I think that's an important lesson we learned," Dougherty said. "All court hearings should be open to the public, and it shouldn't require people to come to the courthouse necessarily."

Dougherty also noted that it gave victims more options when it came to sentencing hearings, allowing some who might have been uncomfortable appearing in person to still be able to voice their feelings or at least follow along.

"It will reduce the amount of tension or stress for victims in the court, whether because of the atmosphere or the dynamics with the defendant," Dougherty said.

Attorneys also agreed that defendants should have the ability to still attend hearings remotely if a hearing is simply being continued or dates are being set, rather than having a person sit in court and wait their turn only to have their hearing take two minutes.

"A lot of times nothing really happens," Collins said. "For a lot of our clients who are working, not having to take off from work and just take a break and step out and take a phone call has been a huge help for them."

'We need to tread very cautiously'

But both Collins and Dougherty agree that in-person hearings are still important and that most hearings should go back to taking place in the court room.

"It's like with school or any profession, there are certain things that are more effective held in person," Dougherty said. "I am really excited to have in-person hearings again. I think that will help us resolve cases."

Collins said while it might sometimes benefit defendants to have the option to appear virtually, it is important they still appear in-person during their case.

"I think that's really dangerous when individuals that are being held in custody already have a feeling that the system doesn't care about them, and we're perpetuating that idea when nobody shows up and everybody is appearing by video," Collins said. "I think its really important that people be treated like individuals, and that an individual be able to be physically in front of a judge, and that a judge has to see them and talk to them, and same with the prosecutors. They should have to look at the client and the client should be able to look at them.

"The more layers that we add, the more it perpetuates this dehumanizing of the clients and the unfairness of the system. I think technology is good and progress is good in some areas, but we need to tread very cautiously because of all the issues that do exist within the criminal justice system."

Collins also noted that while the justice system was able to survive during the remote period, its possible the impacts of virtual hearings may not be known for some time.

"I think there are greater impacts of not appearing in person and trying to build relationship with a client remotely that we don't even know yet," Collins said.

"I'm curious to see, I think at some point there will be research and studies about how the legal system was impacted. Just in the short term, we're noticing and the courts have noticed an increase in caseloads as far as cases not resolving. Is that a product of people not having to come to court, or a product of something else?"

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting