San Antonio drivers with overdue tickets may soon find themselves face-to-face with a judge — in the passenger seat of a squad car.
The city Marshal’s Office recently outfitted a handful of its cars with video-conferencing equipment. When marshals pull over drivers who have arrest warrants due to unpaid tickets, the offenders can speak with a judge immediately via video conference and settle the issue remotely, instead of traveling to the courthouse or detention center.
The video-conferencing software syncs with license plate readers and an electronic court system. Once the judge and driver reach agreement on the ticket, the driver can use a credit card to pay the fine through an online portal on the marshal’s laptop.
Hugh Miller, chief technology officer of San Antonio, said marshals often encounter citizens who aren’t “traditional violators” but simply forgot about the ticket. Interacting with the judge remotely saves them the hassle of missing work for a court appearance or having their car impounded.
“There are times where tickets have been around for years, and so it’s really trying to get to the point where you can get through the process quicker and get the person out of any kind of trouble,” Miller said. “Nobody wants to have a long-standing warrant. This closes the loop in a quicker, cleaner fashion.”
Video conferencing with the judge also saves time for the marshals. Rumaldo Abonce, chief city marshal, said the biggest benefit is getting his people back on the road faster. For example, an arrest can take up to two hours from the traffic stop to the booking. Now if someone wants to resolve his or her violations via video, it can take just 10 minutes.
The concept isn’t new to San Antonio. The city also has a few kiosks in local grocery stores that let residents pay tickets and handle other court matters online, including speaking with a judge.
According to Miller, the complete in-car system was put together in stages over the past year. While the marshals’ cars all had laptops and some were upgraded with 4G wireless air cards and webcams, only five contain the license plate readers, which are essential for the process.
Information on outstanding warrants is uploaded directly into the license plate readers. When a match is detected, marshals determine whether the driver matches what comes up on their screen as the person with the unpaid ticket. If they think the person’s description is close, they pull over the car.
If it’s the driver’s ticket and he wants to take care of it, the marshal will try to connect him with a judge through the in-car video conference so he can pay the amount owed. Sometimes the judge will have the marshal release the person and have him or her report to court if further documentation is required.
If the driver is related to the offender, marshals will often ask the driver to relay the information to that person, Abonce added.
Not every offender gets to video chat with a judge, however. Several judges take turns handling video conferences, but if they aren’t available, the marshals simply escort an offender to court.
“If someone wants to contest the ticket, we at that point either make an arrest for the outstanding warrant or we [take the person] to municipal court,” Abonce said. “But for the most part, this thing has been a really tremendous benefit to the normal San Antonio citizen.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.