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Experts Weigh in on Michigan’s Virtual Court Hearings

Remote hearings enable courts to handle mundane docket matters more efficiently by allowing participants to attend without requiring them to be inconvenienced by perfunctory proceedings that often last minutes.

(TNS) — Corey Harris and Coby Harris aren't related, but they share a common bond — both Michigan residents were defendants in separate livestreamed court proceedings that caught fire online and attracted national media scrutiny.

Video from Corey Harris' May 15 livestreamed hearing in Ann Arbor's 14A District Court went viral after he logged into Zoom with his smartphone while driving a car — to face charges of driving with a suspended license. When Judge Cedric Simpson saw that the 44-year-old Harris was behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, he mouthed the word "wow" before revoking the defendant's bond. An Aug. 7 pretrial hearing is scheduled in the case.

Coby Harris was arrested during a March 2, 2021, livestreamed preliminary examination in 3B District Court in St. Joseph County on Michigan's southern border. As with the case of Corey Harris, video of Coby Harris' hearing was shared millions of times online before the story was picked up by national media outlets.

After Coby Harris was charged with assaulting his pregnant girlfriend, the court ordered the 22-year-old Sturgis resident to avoid contacting her. During the hearing, an assistant prosecutor thought the alleged victim seemed nervous while testifying remotely from home, so she asked the Sturgis Police Department to check the woman's apartment. Officers entered the unit to find the defendant in a room next to his girlfriend. The arrest of Harris was captured on the livestream; he later pleaded guilty to domestic violence and was sentenced to one to five years in prison.

Both cases are examples of issues that didn't exist before remote court hearings became routine in March 2020 at the start of the COVID pandemic, although legal experts insist the benefits of virtual adjudication outweigh the problems, and that the practice is here to stay.

Remote hearings enable the courts to handle mundane docket matters more efficiently by allowing participants to attend without requiring them to take time off work, arrange for babysitters, find transportation or otherwise be inconvenienced by perfunctory proceedings that often last just a few minutes.

But judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and other court officials in Michigan said they've dealt with far more inappropriate behavior on livestreams than they did during live hearings. Sometimes, the improper conduct is intentional, although it's often the result of people forgetting their activities are being broadcast.

"We've seen a lot of crazy things we didn't see before," said 3B Chief District Judge Jeffrey Middleton, who presided over Coby Harris' domestic violence case in St. Joseph County and other hearings that blew up online, garnering him a Facebook fan club with 2,500 members.

"It's a reality show that's real," Middleton said. "You get defendants in their underwear; they take the phone with them to the bathroom and forget they have it with them, and everyone can hear what they're doing."

Remote hearings started before COVID

Since before the pandemic, all Michigan courts have held remote hearings via Zoom that can only be viewed by those who are logged in to the remote feed, although some judges also livestream proceedings to YouTube for the public to see.

Michigan courts began holding Zoom hearings in March 2019, when judges were provided the software that worked with cameras that had been used for years to conduct virtual hearings from jail. When court dockets were handled exclusively on Zoom during the pandemic, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered hearings to also be livestreamed to YouTube to ensure the public and press could access the proceedings as required by the Constitution's First, Fourth and 14th Amendments.

After COVID restrictions were lifted and courtrooms opened in 2021, Michigan judges were no longer required to livestream hearings publicly to YouTube, although Michigan Law 2.408 mandates the types of Zoom hearings where videoconferencing technology "shall be presumed."

"These include civil pretrials, adjournments, modifications to scheduling orders, among others," Michigan Supreme Court spokesman John Nevin said in an email, adding that judges are allowed to retain "judicial discretion to determine what is best for each case or proceeding."

After four years of trial and error, legal professionals said they've worked out some of the kinks involved in holding hearings remotely, although there are still no rules governing many aspects of publicly livestreamed court proceedings in Michigan — including whether judges may collect advertising revenue when YouTube videos of their hearings go viral.

"There's no rule or an ethical opinion covering that, or a lot of other things related to livestreaming," said Cheboygan County Circuit Judge Aaron Gauthier, who chairs the Michigan Judicial Council's Transparency & Public Access Workgroup that studied ways to improve livestreamed court hearings. In July, Gauthier's group submitted recommendations to the Michigan Supreme Court that, if adopted, would prevent courts from monetizing videos of their hearings.

"I think it would be deeply troubling for a judge to get YouTube advertising money," Gauthier said. "I'm not aware of any judges who are doing that, but it's something that needs to be addressed."

Nevin said he also has not heard of any instances of judges profiting from YouTube videos.

"Whether such activity is allowed would involve a legal opinion," Nevin said.

Judges, attorneys and other court officials contacted by The Detroit News agree several things should be taken into consideration before hearings are broadcast to YouTube for public consumption, including the types of cases that should be aired, and topics to avoid discussing publicly.

"Zooming is wonderful for certain types of hearings," Middleton said. "If you've got a civil case, and one lawyer is in Grand Rapids and the other is in Southfield, you can have a pretrial hearing on Zoom and have it done in 15 minutes without someone having to drive across the state.

"But with livestreaming, there are two competing interests to balance — transparency of the legal process against defendants who don't want their dirty laundry aired out in front of the world," Middleton said. "I stream all my proceedings unless they involve children or personal protection orders because I don't want to operate in the shadows.

"I understand that from my position, that's easy enough for me to say," the judge said. "But if you're a defendant in a landlord-tenant case, you didn't sign up for having 50,000 people watching you."

'People recognize him'

Corey Harris' attorney, Dionne Webster-Cox, said Harris is working to overcome the embarrassment of having his case broadcast to millions of people online.

Although her client was charged with driving with a suspended license, Webster-Cox said the ticket was written at the arresting officer's discretion and that Harris never had a license. Harris recently obtained his learner's permit and is working to get his driver's license, while fighting the stigma that comes from being the subject of a viral internet video, his attorney said.

"People recognize him on the street," Webster-Cox said of her client. "Someone came up to him the other day and started ridiculing him while he was walking to the store. But he'll overcome this — he knows he should have had his stuff together, and he's trying to fix all that. We're working to change the narrative from a man who had a bad moment to someone who took care of his business and overcame it. He's going to get his driver's license soon and put all this behind him."

Coby Harris, who was released from prison in May 2023 after serving nearly two years for domestic violence and knowingly assaulting a pregnant woman, couldn't be reached for comment.

Simpson declined to comment about Corey Harris' driving infraction allegations because the case is ongoing, although the judge said the need for transparency outweighs concerns that defendants might be humiliated by what happens during his livestreamed hearings.

"Some have the view that what may happen in the courtroom could embarrass someone, so we shouldn't put it out to the public," Simpson said. "Well, I think people ought to be able to see what goes on in my courtroom. I don't mean to put people in an embarrassing situation, but in a regular courtroom, anyone could walk in and see what happens anyway. So maybe the problem is the ease of streaming; it's easy for people to forget they're in a courtroom."

Detroit defense attorney Gabi Silver said she's learned to be proactive when preparing clients for virtual court.

"I think everyone has gotten a lot better now because we have an idea what to expect," Silver said. "At first, clients would appear (for remote hearings) with no shirt on, and they'd say, 'My lawyer didn't tell me I had to wear a shirt.' Well, I didn't think I needed to tell someone, 'Yeah, you need to wear a shirt to court.' But now I know — I do have to tell them.

"I had a client who was getting sentenced on a sex offense, and he was in a playground with children playing behind him," Silver said. "Now, I'll tell clients things like that ahead of time: Wear a shirt to your hearing. Don't be around kids if you're being sentenced for CSC (criminal sexual conduct)."

'Zoom bombing'

Adopting a proprietary livestreaming platform would not eliminate the inappropriate behavior exhibited during virtual court hearings, some court officials said — and the issues don't always involve defendants, Wayne County Chief Circuit Judge Patricia Perez Fresard said.

"Sometimes it's the lawyers, which was especially true at the beginning (of hearings being livestreamed)," Fresard said. "I've had to say, 'this is a formal courtroom. You should be dressed for court, and not be in a vehicle.' I tell people they'd best pull over, or they're not going to be heard. You can't be driving during a court hearing."

Problems involving the public can surface during Zoom hearings that are accessible to only participants who are allowed access, Fresard said.

"We had a big issue with something called 'Zoom bombing,' where judges would be on a busy motion day, and they'd let someone into the Zoom room who would be naked, or committing other inappropriate acts," Fresard said. "It's happened with every judge."

Fresard said she imposed rules that make it more difficult for "Zoom bombers" to disrupt remote hearings. Court clerks are now required to screen people requesting to enter Zoom hearings.

"If they don't know the person involved in the case, they're not let in," Fresard said.

Simpson said remote hearings have also impacted behavior during live proceedings, particularly with young attorneys who didn't get much courtroom experience before videoconferencing became the norm.

"As we were coming out of the pandemic, it amazed me that some of the younger attorneys didn't know how to act in a courtroom," Simpson said. "None of the etiquette seemed to apply — they didn't understand why they had to stand when the judge entered the courtroom. I had some students and younger attorneys who didn't stand when I entered, and I had to stop and say, 'I realize you guys have been sitting at a desk all this time, but when you're in here live, that's not how you conduct yourself."

Judges sometimes have difficulty handling conflicts remotely, Fresard said.

"It's been kind of a problem," she said. "A lot of people can be touchier with each other when they're not there in person, and that behavior can't be addressed by a sheriff's deputy," she said. "People tend to be more inappropriate with their words and actions remotely — and there's not always as much collegiality between lawyers, either."

Middleton said livestreaming can also expose judges' inappropriate behavior. He referenced Hamtramck 31st District Judge Alexis Krot, whose livestreamed hearing in January 2022 went viral after she berated a 72-year-old cancer patient for failing to maintain his yard. After the video was shared millions of times online, the judge apologized, saying she was "very embarrassed."

"If that hearing hadn't been livestreamed, nobody would have known about it," Middleton said.

Public access

Middleton stopped livestreaming his cases for a few days after he presided over a second hearing that also went viral online, in which a drug defendant logged into his Zoom account under the screen name "Buttf-----3000."

"The first case that went viral was the Coby Harris case, and after that, people started watching my livestream feed," the judge said. "Then, the 'Buttf-----3000' guy comes in, and I didn't know if he had that screen name because he wanted to be famous on the internet or if he was just dumb. I didn't handle it very well, and the video went viral."

During the May 11, 2021, hearing, Middleton asked the defendant his name.

"It's Nathaniel Saxton, sir," the man replied.

The judge shot back: "It's not Buttf-----3000. ... Logging into my court with that as your screen name? What kind of idiot logs into court like that?"

Middleton said he was contacted by the regional State Court Administrator's Office the day after the hearing and told to stop livestreaming to YouTube.

"I made a video telling people that I've been directed to turn off the channel," Middleton said. "But then, the (Michigan) Supreme Court and SCAO told me two days later, 'We're not ordering you to turn off the livestream,' so we turned it back on, but turned off live chat, so people can't comment."

Middleton said he hopes to continue livestreaming his hearings to the public for the rest of his career.

"I'm not doing this for clicks, and I'm not making money off it — I think everyone in the criminal justice system should be held accountable, including me," Middleton said. "If a judge is nasty or condescending, or if an attorney or a defendant is acting inappropriately, then courtrooms were meant to be public, and the public should be allowed to see what goes on."

© 2024 The Detroit News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.