Video court appearances could save St. Lawrence County money, Sheriff Wells says
Sunday, June 1, 2014 - 7:20 am

By CRAIG FREILICH

St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin Wells wants to save taxpayer dollars by having prisoners make some court appearances by video hookup, but so far it is not being used much.

“We’re all set up for it. We have been for a couple of years,” Wells said.

A video setup is located in each of the four housing units at the county jail, paid for with grant money, and “the money is there” for corresponding video setups at courts around the county, Wells said.

But St. Lawrence County Public Defender Stephen Button has his doubts about the efficacy of the video system as it exists now in the jail.

“I have also expressed concern about the lack of comfort and privacy with my defendants at the jail,” where it is said that a conversation between a defendant and an attorney can be heard fairly broadly throughout a “pod,” or group of cells. One attorney familiar with the situation said that “it’s not the technology that’s the problem, it’s the infrastructure, the restrictions on providing appropriate space.”

Wells said the system is being used now by the county attorney, and discussions with the Probation Department and the Department of Social Services. There is a video setup in the Town of Fowler Court, but that’s about the only one in a local court so far, Wells believes.

In St. Lawrence County, the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for operations at the county correctional facility and transport of prisoners, among other duties.

In a place as large as St. Lawrence County, the sheriff could save hundreds of man hours each year if some court proceedings are done by video and don’t require deputies to transport the accused to court.

So a prisoner in the county jail, a defending attorney, a district attorney, and a judge in county court or in a remote town court could arrange to talk out an issue without driving perhaps a hundred miles from one place to another and back.

Right To Choose

But a major issue is that, so far, prisoners have the option to use the video setup or take a ride outside jail to go to court. Not surprisingly, almost all will opt for the ride, Wells said. But legislation pending in Albany could remove the option.

As the law stands now – though there are proposals to change it – defendants have the right to choose what some law enforcement officials refer to as “the ride in the car” instead of a seat in front of a camera in jail.

The state Senate has approved a measure that would rescind the defendant’s option. There is a bill on it in the Assembly, but for two years running it has been referred to the Codes Committee and has not moved beyond that.

Alex Wilson, associate counsel for the New York State Sheriffs’ Association, says the members of that group favor using video conferencing for many appearances with defendants, outside of trials and arraignments.

“Every time they take a person out of a controlled environment, they incur costs, for transportation and possibly overtime, not to mention the physical security risks – not that anything happens often,” Wilson said, but it is a concern. And there is the phenomenon of people showing up for what is supposed to be court action only to find that one or more of the participants can’t be there, so the session is called off, and the prisoner is returned to jail with nothing having been accomplished.

Opposed by Defense Attorneys

Wells says defense attorneys’ associations are lobbying in Albany against taking away the defendant’s option to appear in person, citing a defendant’s right to appear in court.

But not using the system, he says, is “a waste of man-hours.”

Wells emphasizes that video meetings would not be used for arraignments or jury trials, but for things like “status checks, quick motions – something that doesn’t need a jury.”

And Button says Sheriff Wells does his best to be “responsive and accommodating.”

At the video setups in each pod, Button said, “we can ring in and they can speak to us through a computer, but it’s close to the general area where people can see and hear how we are interacting, and I’ve been told it’s not soundproof, that we can be heard.”

The visitors’ room right off the main lobby is another place to meet, in, but Button says privacy there is almost impossible, since the attorney and the defendant speak through a window with a couple of vents. “They feel as if they have to yell to be heard,” he said.

There is another separate room that is made available for legal visits only, when requested by an attorney. “But that, too, to a certain degree, is monitored and doesn’t afford true privacy,” Button said.

But with all that said, Button believes video conferences and video court appearances can be useful “in limited circumstances where appropriate, possibly even a preferred practice.” But much of that is possible only with the defendant’s consent to meet by video link.

And, Button said, whenever the right to counsel might be compromised, the legal system is compromised and he would not support it.

“There is the potential of an attorney being absent leading to a reduction in a defendant’s ability to communicate effectively with counsel,” Button said.