Videoconferencing proving effective for Oklahoma district courts

Sierra Rains
Carter County Courthouse officials started looking into ways to carry out hearings without in-person meetings in March. District Attorney Craig Ladd said may court functions remain virtual.

Changes spurred by the pandemic are afoot in Oklahoma district courts. Courtrooms across the state will soon be allowed to use videoconferencing technology in all stages of civil or criminal proceedings except in jury trials or trials before judges.

The Carter County district court, along with others across the state, began exploring alternative ways to carry out constitutionally required procedures in March after the Supreme Court of the State of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued an order suspending most court procedures.

Operations in the courtrooms have started returning to a “new normal” over the last two weeks, but some of the methods that came out of the pandemic, such as videoconferencing, will continue to be used due to their efficiency.

Some courts had already been using the technology prior to the pandemic, but it was not until afterwards that videoconferencing became more widely used for a larger amount of procedures.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 3756, allowing the expanded use of videoconferencing in district courts, into law late last month.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has really highlighted the flexibility and usefulness offered by videoconferencing. The utilization of videoconferencing in district courts has the potential to save our criminal justice system both time and money, as well as maintaining public safety,” said Oklahoma Rep. Nicole Miller, R-Edmond, who authored the bill, in a May 21 statement.

Craig Ladd, the district attorney for the 20th Judicial District, said the majority of court procedures at the Carter County courthouse are still being done through videoconferencing technology, with the exception of guilty pleas on felonies and contested hearings.

“It minimizes peoples’ exposure to other people — it’s a real good way to ensure social distancing,” Ladd said.

During the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, the district court was only conducting emergency hearings. Over the last two weeks the court has held preliminary conferences, initial appearances and arraignments. It also started creating a disposition docket for misdemeanors again, as well as holding drug court.

Ladd said the videoconferencing technology has come in handy for preliminary conferences and initial appearances because restrictions are still being placed on who can enter the courthouse and how many people are allowed in at one time.

Inmates are able to speak with their attorneys over phone. “Their attorneys advise them what the offer is and whether or not they want to waive their right to a preliminary hearing,” Ladd said.

If a hearing is required, the defendant can meet with the judge through a videoconference. For inmates at the Carter County jail, there is a camera that they can be brought in front of for the discussion.

Once the new house bill goes into effect in November, the court may also be able to have defendants plead guilty to felonies through videoconferences.

Deputies from the Carter County Sheriff’s Office are currently working to ensure the polices at the courthouse are followed by checking individuals’ temperatures before they enter, ensuring people are wearing masks and only allowing in defendants who have court dates and are with their attorneys.

Once the restrictions are further relaxed, however, Ladd said videoconferencing technology may help increase the efficiency of the court system. As more procedures are conducted over video, more time is allowed for deputies to focus on enforcing the law, rather than transporting defendants to and from the courthouse.

“It saves the county from having to transport inmates from county jails to the courthouse,” Ladd said. “That takes more effort if you’re not doing the videoconferencing, so I would say that it does make it a little easier for the transport guys because they don’t have to transport.”

Court procedures still being carried out in person are practiced using social distancing and masks. While the end of such practices is uncertain, videoconferencing technology will continue to be used in the courts likely well past the pandemic.

“One thing we’ve learned during this health crisis is that we have to be more efficient in government. This is a great example of using technology to modernize our court systems,” said Sen. Michael Brooks, D-Oklahoma City, a former criminal defense lawyer, in the May 21 statement.