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SWINDLE COLUMN: Could video conferencing save court’s time, taxpayer money?

Six years ago, I wrote a column about video conference hearings in Georgia. As it turned out, COVID has forced the courts to adapt to the virus.  One of the main tools that is used in the criminal justice system today is the videoconference. 

While I was skeptical of this idea, it is working and cases are moving through the system.  Defendants and alleged victims are getting justice quicker, money is being saved by not having a courtroom of people missing work, and more hearings can take place in order to cut down on the caseload backup as a result to COVID. 

Every day across Georgia, hundreds of witnesses must appear in court to provide testimony. Many of these witnesses are medical personnel who are taking care of COVID patients.  The technology that video conferencing provides makes the actual appearance of these witnesses unnecessary.

Video conferencing actually allows the defendant or witness to be “present” in the courtroom even if that witness lives thousands of miles away.

The person is live on a screen in the courtroom, able to testify, be cross-examined, confer with attorneys, and be able to see other witnesses testify.

Another example of when video conferencing will work is with crime lab witnesses. Oftentimes, a crime lab witness just has to answer a couple of important questions about an illegal drug; “Did you test this substance?’ “What did you find it to be?”

Currently, the crime lab witness may be subpoenaed for court, drive to the county where the trial is taking place, and wait to be called to testify. This is a waste of time for the state employee and a waste of money for the Georgia taxpayer. It also furthers the backup of cases at the G.B.I. crime lab in Atlanta.

Video conferences would also assist in habeas corpus hearings. Five years ago, I was called to South Georgia as a witness in a habeas case. Along with me, were several other lawyers, prosecutors, probation officers, and other state employees.

While habeas corpus is an important Constitutional right, the vast majority of motions filed by inmates are simply frivolous. As I looked across the courtroom back in 2016, I wondered how much taxpayer money was being wasted on the two meritless hearings that were to take place.

Naturally, some folks will have a problem with video conferencing. The primary concern would be the defendant’s right to confront the witnesses who testify against him. I understand this concern. However, in most cases, the defendant has a right to be physically present in a courtroom. This certainly applies to trials.

Interestingly, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit (which includes Georgia) has been experimenting with new uses for video conferencing for years. The Court has used video conferencing technology to make it easier for judges to participate in oral arguments.

I recently spoke to some members of the west Georgia delegation to the General Assembly, local DA’s, judges, prosecutors, and some criminal defense attorneys about the opportunity to significantly expand the use of video conferencing. There was overwhelming support for the idea.

Instead of continuous court orders from the Supreme Court of Georgia, the General Assembly must step in and pass laws that provide specific instructions regarding a crisis within the system. 

Georgia taxpayers would benefit if a strong bill was introduced in 2022 authorizing the use of video conferences in as many circumstances that would pass Constitutional challenges.

I hope that you will join me in bringing this to the attention of our public servants in Atlanta.