Pennsylvania Court Expands Video Use to Meet Demand

Rather than keep litigants six feet away from each other, Northampton County, Pa., has instead decided to take people out of its courtrooms and put them on the Internet with the use of video technology.

by Rudy Miller, The Express-Times / May 26, 2020
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(TNS) — Rather than keep litigants six feet away from each other, Northampton County, Pa., has taken them out of its courtrooms and put them on the internet.

The county is taking advantage of a coronavirus-related Pennsylvania Supreme Court rule that allows for video appearances by parties in court.

The court has held video hearings for prisoners for years, but the Supreme Court expanded its rules to allow parties other than prisoners to appear in court via video due to the ongoing pandemic.

Even though the courthouse remains closed to the public, attorneys, defendants and court workers can appear in court via video, Northampton County President Judge Michael Koury said last week.

“Our goal from the beginning was to keep the cases in our court flowing and not develop a backlog of cases,” Koury said. The court has been conducting video hearings since mid-March.

All county employees, including the assistant district attorneys, have Skype for Business installed on their laptops. So all of them can participate in video court hearings via Skype by using their phones or computers, Koury said.

Defense attorneys and other non-employees are invited to participate in hearings via Skype. If they don’t want to participate that way, they’re invited to report to a courtroom separate from the judge and can participate via video from that room, Koury said.

That way everyone stays socially distant.

“I think it’s worked wonderfully since it started,” said Northampton County District Attorney Terence Houck. “Had we not been able to do this these cases would be piling up.”

“I think it’s user friendly,” Koury said of Skype. “As long as you have a smartphone or a laptop, there’s not much you have to do except click on the link. You don’t even need the app on your phone.”

The right to a speedy trial for criminal defendants was suspended by the state Supreme Court due to the pandemic. The period from mid-March until the end of May won’t count toward the time prosecutors can take before taking a case to trial.

But when court is expected to resume in June, the district attorney’s office faces a backlog of cases to try.

One case that is near its deadline is the rape case of Justo Garcia, Houck said. That case is among the cases expected to be tried June 15, the first scheduled week of criminal jury trials.

Koury said 300 jurors are on notice to appear that week. He’s working on a plan to keep them socially distant. He anticipates summoning groups of 25 or fewer to each of the courtrooms, where they’ll be briefed on jury service via video.

When it comes time to pick a panel, the prospective jurors will likely be taken to Courtroom One, the county’s largest courtroom.

Video court hasn’t been perfect. In a hearing Tuesday, the video feed kept cutting out for criminal defendant Matthew Lieberman. Because Lieberman couldn’t see the judge, his attorney asked for an in-person hearing date in June.

Koury said he reported the problem to the county information technology department.

“Every time an issue arises we discuss it with the IT department and they have been able to resolve all the issues,” Koury said.

Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure said he hopes to open the courthouse by June 8, pending any decision by Gov. Tom Wolf to extend the state’s stay-at-home order. Visitors to the courthouse would be subject to a temperature screening and would be required to wear a mask.

Koury said masks would be made available to jurors. Jurors are also invited to bring their own.

So far few of the prospective jurors have asked to be excused from service due to coronavirus concerns.

“If anyone felt uncomfortable serving, the court would obviously excuse that juror,” Koury said.

©2020 The Express-Times, Easton, Pa. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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