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Remote court capabilities become paramount in coronavirus pandemic

100gavelUsing technology to conduct judicial business remotely has grown in popularity in recent years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made the practice  almost a necessity for Maryland courts, as they take steps to allow cases and hearings to be conducted electronically or over the phone.

The Maryland Judiciary has technology in place to allow certain proceedings to be conducted remotely, from basic telephone conferences to video calls, according to spokeswoman Nadine Maeser.

Maryland courthouses are closed to the public through April 3, by order of Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, but they remain sufficiently staffed to hear certain emergency matters, including bail reviews, arraignments, emergency evaluation petitions and body attachments. During the emergency, all Maryland judges are allowed to sit in any trial court in the state and must be available to respond in person or remotely, according to the order.

An order issued Friday authorizes remote proceedings for emergency matters when courts have the ability.

The available technology differs from court to court, but judges are working to minimize the number of people in the courtroom for hearings and are taking steps to hear cases remotely.

“We have been able to do things like have installed on our computers the software that allows us to link directly to the jail,” Harford County District Court Administrative Judge Susan H. Hazlett said. “I can do video bails from my kitchen.”

Bail reviews are constitutionally required and must continue, Hazlett said, and the court already does video hearings with defendants from the local detention center. Now, though, prosecutors and defense attorneys can call in or appear via video calling software and pretrial services personnel provide a report electronically instead of appearing in person to make a recommendation.

“We’re making it work,” Hazlett said. “We have the resources and we have the ability to process what we need to process.”

There has been an uptick in requests for bail review or sentencing modifications during the coronavirus pandemic, Hazlett said, as attorneys worried about the risk of infection in jail work to get their clients out.

“We are reviewing each one,” she said. “As fast as our clerks can process them, we’re getting them.”

In Montgomery County, Judge John H. Maloney took steps to continue the circuit court’s drug court program remotely.

“Obviously, we can’t meet with them and they’re not allowed to go to their Alcoholics Anonymous meetings now,” Maloney said.

The coronavirus has created any number of stressors for people in recovery, according to Maloney, and he wants to be able to stay in touch with them and provide the support of drug court.

“We decided we cannot abandon these people at this time,” he said. “This is when they need us the most.”

Maloney spent Thursday running drug court via telephone all day for small groups instead of the two usual Thursday court sessions.

“I was concerned about how it was going to go … but there was great, positive energy in every one of these sessions,” he said. “A lot of these people have lived with great chaos in their lives before.”

Maloney said he was alone in the courtroom for the calls and participants had been assigned a time to call in. He was also able to conduct remote hearings for sanctions for those who had tested positive for drugs.

“I think we’re going to continue with this,” he said. “Everyone was very positive with how it worked out.”

Companies that make remote court software are seeing a surge in interest as courts around the country explore options for remote hearings.

CourtCall, a Los Angeles-based company that provides telephone and video services for remote court participation, began preparing for increased demand around a month ago, CEO Robert V. Alvarado Jr. said.

“Two weeks ago we were getting the early calls,” he said. “Last week we were getting the panicked calls.”

CourtCall serves almost 3,000 courts around the country, including courts in  Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Calvert and Queen Anne’s counties, as well as in federal bankruptcy court. Alvarado said he expects more courts to continue using remote services after the coronavirus emergency subsides.

“What we will see is an expansion in the courts that we currently serve and the new courts that are coming on board,” he said. “It’s a sea change for all of us.”

Morris Massel, president of CourtSolutions LLC, said his company began receiving calls about two weeks ago from current customers who were preparing to go remote and then from prospective customers.

“We’re seeing the stress out there and we’re trying the very best we can to accommodate and bring on everyone as fast as possible,” he said.

CourtSolutions, based in New York, provides telephone access to court hearings; the system incorporates a website structure that allows court personnel to see photos of everyone on the call. The company does not currently have any clients in Maryland.

“It’s meant to be simple,” Morris said, noting that the software has been popular in federal bankruptcy courts and that state and local courts have also started to take an interest recently.


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