Virtual Courtroom Threats to Criminal Cases
COVID-19 & Virtual Court Proceedings
COVID-19 has prohibited court operations from proceeding normally, forcing countless courthouses to adopt an alternative to in-person hearings: Video conferencing.
While people argue that this method is more convenient and efficient, it’s also problematic. Justice cannot be served unless defendants receive a fair trial. They ultimately suffer at the hands of virtual court proceedings and have no other choice but to accept it and continue or stay in limbo until it’s safe to have in-person court hearings. At this point, all in-person gatherings may not resume for several weeks or months.
Virtual courtrooms take away several key elements of a criminal court proceeding:
A human element: It’s challenging to humanize a person when communicating with them through a screen. In many criminal and immigration cases, empathy and compelling interactions are essential, and without them, judges may be less likely to give favorable verdicts. Emotional connections are difficult to establish, and considering how dehumanizing the immigration system is, emotional ties are crucial.
Further, it’s difficult to determine people’s credibility when speaking through a screen, especially when the video quality isn’t great. Cues such as facial expressions, body language and emotional reactions are tougher to examine virtually.
What’s noteworthy is that defendants are portrayed in ways they have never been seen before: In jail. People who are behind bars and awaiting their virtual court hearings must stay in jail and “attend” their court hearings from there. This not only creates a bias but gives a false impression that defendants are already guilty or convicted of a crime, which can damage their case.
Language barriers: Defendants who don’t speak English need an interpreter to understand what’s happening and efficiently communicate their needs, but virtual courtrooms limit access to essential resources such as interpreters. In immigration hearings especially, the lack of a translator can impact a defendant’s case in devastating ways.
Limited witness testimony: Under pre-coronavirus conditions, witnesses could enter a courtroom if they had their ID, but in many virtual proceedings, only courtroom staff are allowed. Some have reported that only witnesses who are approved by a judge can testify virtually in New Jersey immigration hearings.
Lack of privacy: In a normal court trial, lawyers and their clients have opportunities to speak privately. Defendants can whisper questions during their trial and feel reassured that their questions will be answered in confidence. In virtual trials, however, that’s not possible.
There is little to no opportunity for lawyers to have private conversations with their clients. If a client has questions along the way, they can’t ask their lawyer without all participants hearing them. This forces lawyers to schedule private conversations with their clients, which isn’t always possible every time a question or concern arises.
Technical barriers: Poor internet connection, pixelated video quality, poor sound quality and limited access to technology can all interfere with a defendant’s ability to experience a smooth and fair trial. If they’re joining a virtual trial from prison or a place with poor internet connection and limited access to speakers and microphones, defendants’ cases may be at a disadvantage for these reasons alone.
Not everyone has access to a computer, smartphone or tablet, and if they do, video conferencing functions may not work. Thus, a defendant may end up missing their trial due to technical difficulties and face added consequences as a result of something that isn’t their fault. Not all defendants and lawyers have the digital literacy needed to navigate a virtual court proceeding. They may have trouble accessing their hearing, enabling video and sound and operating their presentations.
In addition, certain platforms like Skype for Business require that videos with audio be embedded into a PowerPoint presentation, then shared. However, there are restrictions on the file size and video formats permitted, creating added stress and hardships for participants.
Security and safety: Technology is not entirely secure, as hackers and other outside parties can access video conferences. This is dangerous because private and personal information is shared during virtual hearings, and it is unclear how secure video conference platforms are. Thus, sensitive information could be leaked as a result of virtual trials.
Further, defendants participating in virtual trials from jail are surrounded by other inmates. Jails have no privacy that’s part of the punishment therefore inmates can easily eavesdrop on a defendant’s virtual trial. Since incarceration is notorious for violence and gangs, a defendant’s safety and wellbeing could be jeopardized if the wrong person overhears their personal details from a virtual hearing.
COVID-19 has impacted almost every aspect of normal life, including the justice system. As such, our criminal defense attorney at The Clark Law Firm is prepared for all potential threats that may arise during your virtual court proceeding and prepare effective and proactive measures to reduce any harmful interference in your case.
If you need dependable legal representation from a lawyer who understands how both sides of the courtroom operate, contact us at (817) 435-4970 as soon as possible to get started!