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Critics Question Council's Plan for Putting Traffic Court on Video
The Judicial Council is considering allowing trial courts to hold traffic infraction proceedings by remote-location video, a proposal that critics called potentially unconstitutional and possibly unworkable.
The idea was born last year after Fresno County Superior Court announced that budget cuts would force it to shutter seven outlying courthouses and concentrate all services in its Fresno city buildings. Under a plan crafted by the Administrative Office of the Courts, courts like Fresno would be allowed to operate video conference services for traffic infraction defendants in city halls or county buildings in areas far from an open courthouse.
AOC lobbyists approached state lawmakers in the final weeks of last year's session about carrying legislation to authorize the practice. But a bill never materialized. Now AOC staffers say the Judicial Council doesn't need legislative approval for video proceedings, just the new rules of court on the council's agenda.
But a trade group representing approximately 1,700 criminal defense attorneys questions whether that's true. They're also critical of a provision that would allow law enforcement officers in some cases to testify at the courthouse, not at the remote location where the defendant is.
Ignacio Hernandez, a lobbyist for California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said some of his group's members believe the setup may violate defendants' Sixth Amendment right to confront their accusers.
"We understand that they're trying to make it easier for everyone," Hernandez said, "but it has to work legally."
Defendants who appear by video conference would have to sign a form waiving their rights to appear in person before a judicial officer and to question the infraction-issuing officer. Defendants who don't want to do that could still appear in a traditional traffic court. But Hernandez said that may not be a viable option for a poor or car-less rural resident who lives hours from the county courthouse.
Ventura County Superior Court Judge Mark Borrell, who chairs the Traffic Advisory Committee, was unavailable to discuss the proposal Wednesday afternoon, according to an AOC spokeswoman. An AOC staff report said delaying the proposal, as CACJ requested, would be unwise "because it is needed to address the immediate adverse impacts of court closures on low-income defendants, law enforcement, and communities in general no longer served by local courthouses. The magnitude of the judicial branch budget reductions has forced rapid court closures and severely reduced access of the public to court proceedings for traffic citations."
California's court-employed interpreters have also questioned the plan. The AOC staff report says courts will provide interpreters to video defendants as needed, but it's not clear whether a language specialist would be sent to the remote location or work from the courthouse.
Michael Ferreira, president of the California Federation of Interpreters, said the proposed rules don't address technology quality, whether defendants will be able to talk confidentially with their lawyers and interpreters and how documents can be viewed accurately over a video screen.
"Because they've kept us in the dark about so much of this, we feel very uncomfortable about what the language aspect of this is going to look like," Ferreira said.
The remote-video proposal is supported by a handful of courts and organizations, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
The Judicial Council met at 12:30 p.m. Thursday at the Golden Gate Avenue state complex in San Francisco.