SSix years ago, I wrote a column about videoconference hearings in Georgia. As it turns out, COVID has forced the courts to adapt to the virus. One of the main tools used in the criminal justice system today is video conferencing.
While I was skeptical of this idea, it works and cases are flowing through the system. Accused and alleged victims get justice faster, money is saved by not having a courtroom for those absent from work, and more hearings can be held to reduce the workload by due to COVID.
Every day across Georgia, hundreds of witnesses are required to appear in court to give their testimony. Many of these witnesses are medical staff caring for COVID patients. The technology provided by videoconferencing makes the actual appearance of these witnesses unnecessary.
Videoconferencing effectively allows the accused or witness to be “present” in the courtroom even if that witness lives thousands of kilometers away.
The person is live on a screen in the courtroom, able to testify, be cross-examined, speak to lawyers and see other witnesses testify.
Another example of where videoconferencing will work is with criminal lab witnesses. Often times, a criminal lab witness need only answer a few important questions about an illegal drug; “Have you tested this substance? “What did you find?” “
Currently, the criminal laboratory witness can be subpoenaed to appear in court, travel to the county where the trial is taking place, and wait to be called to testify. It is a waste of time for the state employee and a waste of money for the Georgian taxpayer. It also promotes case saving at the GBI Criminal Lab in Atlanta.
Video conferencing would also be useful for 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 petitions filed by inmates are simply frivolous. Looking across the courtroom in 2016, I wondered how much taxpayer money was wasted on the two baseless hearings that were to take place.
Naturally, some people will have a problem with video conferencing. The main concern would be the accused’s right to confront witnesses who testify against him. I understand this concern. However, in most cases the defendant has the right to be physically present in a courtroom. This certainly applies to testing.
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 used videoconferencing technology to make it easier for judges to participate in pleadings.
I recently spoke to some members of the West Georgia delegation to the General Assembly, local prosecutors, judges, prosecutors and some criminal defense lawyers about the advisability of significantly expanding the use of videoconferencing. The idea was widely supported.
Instead of continuing judicial orders from the Georgia Supreme Court, the General Assembly must step in and pass laws that provide specific instructions regarding a crisis within the system.
Georgian taxpayers would benefit if a strong bill were introduced in 2022 allowing the use of video conferencing in as many circumstances as would pass constitutional challenges.
I hope you will join me in bringing this matter to the attention of our officials in Atlanta.