District Court Judge Susan Oram, right, listens to attorney Jeffrey Dolley, left, at 8th District Court in Lewiston on Tuesday afternoon. Behind him to the left is a monitor showing District Attorney Andrew S. Robinson in his office down the street and Dolley’s client at the Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Inmates are no longer making the time-consuming and labor-intensive trek from the Androscoggin County Jail across the Androscoggin River to 8th District Court in Lewiston to go before a judge.

Starting this week, all hearings with Androscoggin County Jail inmates are being held in cyberspace or, more specifically, with help from Google software, according to a court administrator.

On Friday, the videoconferencing software had a trial launch at the local courthouse, where most criminal cases in the county are first heard by a judge.

Before this week, the inmates would be driven from the jail to the basement of the district courthouse, then brought up two stories to the courtroom in small groups to be seen in person.

Now, the inmate is escorted to a room in the jail and seated in front of a laptop.

An officer will wait just outside the door while the inmate confers privately online about the new criminal charges with a defense attorney who appears on the laptop’s screen.

Once the hearing starts, though, the judge presiding over the case may sit on the bench in the courtroom where a TV monitor is set up with sound and picture. Or the judge may sit at a laptop in chambers or even at home, a court administrator said. Same for the defense attorney representing the inmate and likewise for the prosecutor.

All are connected and can appear on screen for the hearing.

Although this type of technology has been around for awhile, it’s something new for the local inmate population.

So far, it’s gotten rave reviews from administrators at the jail and the courthouse.

“It’s been really good,” said Capt. Jeffrey Chute, the jail’s head administrator, adding, “The situation that made us do it isn’t good,” referring to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It worked really well,” said Michelle Haggan, divisional supervisor of the Androscoggin County Unified Criminal Docket. “It’s amazing what technology can do.”

On Monday, only the judge, a clerk and defense attorney appeared in the courtroom in person.
“That was it,” Haggan said. “Nobody else.”

Everyone involved could see and hear everyone else, she said.

The public, normally allowed in the courtroom, has been barred from these proceedings since March 16.
The courthouse has limited its hours from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., instead of its normal 4:30 p.m. closing time.

Inmates seeking to amend bail are scheduled to appear daily by videoconference, followed by new inmates seeking an initial appearance before a judge.

Haggan said the public may continue to come to the courthouse to pay fines and traffic tickets or contest a ticket.

The only other hearings held at the courthouse, in keeping with a state judicial branch edict, are for orders seeking protection from abuse or harassment, which are heard on Fridays.

The court has staggered those hearings in an effort to minimize the number of people in the courthouse at any one time.

“Right now we are trying to prevent the spread of this infectious disease by calling in each case separately and limiting the number of participants in the building,” said Andre Frechette, administrative clerk at Lewiston District Court.

“Our marshals are instructing people fairly assertively to keep their distance from one another,” he said. “Really, our marshals have done a pretty terrific job trying to keep the flow of traffic to a minimum, trying to keep only necessary participants in and also making sure people remain as apart from one another as they can while they’re in the building.”

Jeffrey Dolley, a Lewiston defense attorney who appeared in the courtroom Tuesday with a judge and clerk, praised the court for seeking to give people in custody their day in court within 48 hours of arrest.

“I think the court is doing a really, really good job of protecting the rights of the people who are being arrested and whose liberty is at stake,” he said.

 


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