The Judicial Council on Thursday authorized courts to handle traffic infraction proceedings by remote-location video despite the objections of criminal defense attorneys and interpreters.
The pilot program will allow courts to set up makeshift hearing rooms in far-flung city halls or county buildings so that distant residents can plead their traffic case over the airwaves to a bench officer sitting miles away. Fresno County Superior Court is expected to be the first to hook up the new system after officials there closed seven outlying courthouses and consolidated operations in three Fresno city buildings. But the proposal adopted Thursday will allow any court to create a traffic proceedings-by-video system with the council’s approval.
“Anything that allows someone to have their day in court is exciting,” said Plumas County Superior Court Judge Ira Kaufman.
Participants in the video proceedings must waive their right to confront an accusing law enforcement officer in person. Police and sheriff’s deputies, with a judge’s approval, will be allowed to testify at the main courthouse instead of the defendant’s location.
Defense attorneys complained that the set-up could violate the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause. A court interpreters’ union also questioned whether courthouse-based language specialists will be able to speak confidentially or translate documents accurately via video.
But council members, who approved the video plan unanimously, said they and local bench officers can be trusted to make the system work fairly.
“The choice is the defendant’s,” said Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson. “We’re talking about a written waiver situation, and I’m mindful that as recently as yesterday I allowed an individual to waive his confrontation rights in exchange for 39 years in state prison. So we do this waiver of confrontation rights. It’s something that’s part and parcel of our system.”
Defendants in traffic cases can still choose to have an in-person trial or arraignment if they travel to the central courthouse — an unrealistic option, critics say, for poor residents who don’t have a car or can’t afford to travel far.
“The Judicial Council called the proposal an ‘experiment,’ but I’m not sure we should experiment with limiting someone’s Constitutional rights,” said Ignacio Hernandez, a lobbyist for the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. “The council still has time to remedy some of the issues. I look forward to the discussions going forward.”
The pilot program will start in February and run through 2015, when its success will be evaluated.
Also on Thursday, the council officially shelved four courthouse projects planned in Fresno, Los Angeles, Nevada and Sacramento counties to free up $550 million that will be spent instead on a new Long Beach courthouse. Lawmakers and the governor have made clear that the state general fund won’t pay for the Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse and that judiciary officials must dip into the branch’s own construction funds to pick up the tab. A Judicial Council committee in December selected the four courthouse projects that were axed.
Branch leaders had expected the state to provide funding for the Long Beach building, which is being constructed under a controversial public-private partnership approved by the Schwarzenegger administration.
Cheryl Miller is a reporter for The Recorder, a Legal affiliate based in San Francisco.