'Hollywood Squares On The Screen' As Coronavirus Forces Courts' Move To Remote Hearings

Riverside County public defender Paulette Norman prepares for a remote court hearing from home. (Courtesy of Paulette Norman)

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Courtrooms in the greater L.A. area are pivoting to remote proceedings using technology as they try to balance the demands of justice with the need to keep everyone safe from COVID-19.

On Monday, the California Judicial Council approved a slew of changes mostly aimed at reducing human contact at courthouses and keeping more people out of jail.

The Council now allows courts to conduct most preliminary hearings in criminal cases remotely, through an attorney or via teleconference.

Riverside County claims it's one of the first in the state to go entirely remote through a video conferencing system called CourtCall.


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Orange, San Bernardino and Ventura counties are all using remote technology for in-custody arraignments. Those counties are still holding a limited number of in-person hearings.

L.A. County — the largest court system in the country — has started piloting remote access in a few courtrooms at the Foltz Criminal Justice Center and the Pomona Courthouse South, a courts spokeswoman told us. The county says it's working quickly to expand its use of the technology.

On Thursday, Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile announced that all essential juvenile dependency hearings are now using remote technology. Delinquency hearings are being held "to the extent permitted by law" in all juvenile courthouses, according to the press release.

The county is planning another remote technology pilot for mental health conservatorship hearings at the Hollywood Courthouse, it added.

Brazile declined our request for an interview, as did several other county judges.

A RARITY: PROSECUTORS AND DEFENSE ATTORNEYS UNITE

L.A. prosecutors and defense attorneys have recently criticized the county for keeping some courts open.

In a rare show of unity, the unions representing the county's deputy district attorneys and public defenders teamed up last month to sound the alarm over a lack of sanitation supplies and social distancing measures. That led to more courtroom closures.

More than 450 of L.A.'s 600 courtrooms and at least five courthouses have closed entirely, but attorneys are still entering some courtrooms for arraignments and hearings stemming from bench warrants.

One deputy DA who asked to remain anonymous because she's not authorized to speak to the media told us she starts off her mornings at the Compton Courthouse by wiping down her table, her chairs, and the door handles with her personal stash of Clorox wipes. Then she passes the wipes around the room.

"We're all anxious," she said. "I feel like we're doing work that we shouldn't be doing."

Nikhil Ramnaney, the president of the public defender's union, said his members are being told to socially distance, but they can't advise clients privately from six feet away.

"That's not what the constitution envisioned when it discusses a valid and ethical defense," he said.

'HOLLYWOOD SQUARES ON THE SCREEN'

About an hour's drive east in Riverside County, public defender Paulette Norman starts her day off much differently.

She sits down in front of her home computer and opens up the CourtCall video conferencing software.

"I have a window [where] I can see myself. I have a window [where] I can see the jails. I have a window [where] I can see the court," she said, rattling off a long list. "And you try to not talk over each other."

Norman said she hasn't set foot in a courtroom in over a week.

Riverside County Presiding Judge John Vineyard said the video system has been fully operational since late March.

"It almost works a little bit like Zoom, except it's actually secure," he said, citing initial worries about "zoom-bombing" and malware.

It took a few days to work out the kinks — including navigating firewalls in the jails and the DA's office. Vineyard said there's also been a learning curve for judges and attorneys who've never worked remotely.

"One of our judges describes it as Hollywood Squares on the screen," he said.

Five Riverside County courtrooms are operating remotely, Vineyard said: two in Western Riverside, one in Murrieta, one in Indio, and one in Blythe. Another group of judges will be trained to operate the equipment next week, he added.

The county's three juvenile courts also moved to remote hearings on Wednesday, Vineyard said.

As courts nationwide switch to video hearings, some advocacy groups worry about whether a client can be properly represented remotely by their attorney.

"It's clearly not as good as sitting one-on-one live," admitted Vineyard. But in his county's case, he said attorneys and their clients are able to log onto CourtCall an hour before their hearing to talk privately.

County public defender Norman is happy about the change. She said the safety of the court staff as well as her clients outweigh her concerns about the limitations of video conferencing.

"It was so impossible to keep social distancing," she said, referring to the weeks before the county made the switch.

"Even if you only brought in five inmates at a time, it seems unfair to them," she said. She worried about inmates crammed together on a long bus ride or in a crowded court elevator.

Norman said her biggest challenge is trying to understand all the new court restrictions, and then presenting them to her clients.

"You're trying to explain to someone who thinks, no, I want my speedy trial rights, and trying to explain to them the speedy trial rights have been altered right now, because of the emergency," she said.

"Right now I'm just trying my best to get everyone back to court as soon as humanly possible, and trying to do it the best way I can."