Video arraignments the wave of the future


AUBURN – The judge leaned forward and stared squarely at the television that sat on a cart facing his mahogany bench.

“Any further questions?” he asked the screen, his voice growing louder.

On the large, flat-screen television was a small, remote image of a man sitting in the corner of his prison cell. White, concrete-block walls reflecting the light cast him in shadow. Prompted by the judge’s question, the man peered up at the camera.

“Yeah,” he answered. “I don’t know why this is a felony charge.”

The charge was terrorizing. The man was Jacob Lovejoy, 25, of Lisbon Falls. He was 35 miles from Androscoggin County Superior Court sitting in a cell at Mainem State Prison in Warren, where he is an inmate serving five years on three convictions, including robbery.

Whether he realized it, Lovejoy was making local history during his recent video arraignment.

He was the first prisoner at Maine State Prison to appear in court without leaving the building. He also was the first defendant to appear via live feed in Androscoggin County Superior Court. He likely won’t be the last.

“I thought it went well,” Justice Donald Marden said.

State agencies had used video conferencing equipment at the courthouses in the Twin Cities. A couple of video court appearances had been held in the law library at Androscoggin County Superior Courthouse, as well as in judge’s chambers, court workers said.

Never before had the equipment been used in the antique courtroom where the electronics stood out from the dated decor.

It’s not a coincidence that Marden presided over the cutting-edge hearing. In his courtroom in Augusta, where he usually sits, video arraignments are commonplace.

Earlier this week, Marden conducted 16 video proceedings, in his Kennebec County Superior Court; one half involved felony charges, the other half, misdemeanors.

When approached by a court clerk at Androscoggin County Superior Court with the idea of trying something new, Marden was willing.

“If we had our druthers, we’d like to eyeball defendants right in front of us,” he said. But that’s not always feasible, especially in a state as rural as Maine, he said.

Video arraignments are held regularly – mostly for district court cases – in three counties: Aroostook, Kennebec and York. There, virtually every arraignment is conducted by live video feed, said Doug Birgfeld, who oversees technical projects at the Administrative Office of the Courts. The only exceptions, he said, are made in cases where defendants must attend in person.

Courtrooms in four more Maine counties are expected to conduct regular video court proceedings in the near future. They are: Washington, Franklin, Sagadahoc and Lincoln. Oxford and Franklin county courts are in negotiations and could be doing routine video proceedings as early as next winter, Birgfeld said.

A 2005 study carried out by his office examined the needs of the state’s various courtrooms, researched the technology and proposed a three-year plan for putting the needed equipment and training in place. Where appropriate, protocols for video conferencing court proceedings should be in place at all Maine courtrooms by fall next year, Birgfeld said.

“We’re moving the methodology through the state county by county,” said Deborah Carson, director of court finances.

Having prisoners appear in court by live video achieves two important things, officials said: It saves money on fuel and personnel, and it’s safer.

How much savings?

Court officials don’t know exactly, yet.

“That’s a difficult nugget,” Birgfeld said.

But they hope to determine how much of a savings is generated by the new protocol, he said.

Courtrooms are just one venue turning to technology to bring together people separated by miles, if only in the virtual sense. It’s also being used by businesses and state agencies and at hospitals, where doctors may carry out medical procedures thousands of miles away from their patients.

On the recommendation of the Court Technology Committee, Maine’s top judge, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, led the fight earlier this decade to buy the technology needed to implement the plan. Carson, the state’s court finances director, said many states have incorporated the technology into their courtrooms. Maine’s judicial branch is the third-lowest funded in the country, she noted.

The State of Maine Judicial Branch has bought more than 40 of the units at a cost of $7,000 apiece. They include monitors with small round cameras perched on top that can turn and zoom at the push of a button on a remote-control unit. A microphone is built into the camera.

While they can control the quantity and quality of the courtroom equipment, the courts have no say when it comes to equipping jails and prisons. Most have been cooperative, Carson said. The only mandate laid down by the courts is that the equipment is able to transmit an image with a minimum resolution that won’t get bogged down during the court proceeding.

“So that you’re not looking as if you’re in a space shuttle while at a video arraignment,” Carson said.

Although the state’s plan was launched in late 2005, it wasn’t the first time Maine tried to conduct court proceedings by television.

In the early 1990s, a pilot program was started in Cumberland County, then stopped abruptly, Carson said. It probably looked very different from today’s video feeds.

“It’s a technical generation apart,” she said.

Justice Marden has noted only two drawbacks during his time in front of the camera: defense lawyers don’t always have an opportunity to confer in private with their clients; and the exchange of court documents among judge, clerk, defendant and attorney is a problem when they aren’t all in the same room.

In Augusta, Marden said his bench is equipped with a fax machine for that purpose. It’s not ideal, he said.

“It’s not the best system in the world, and it’s extremely distracting,” he said.