Virtual courts

Dec 17, 2008 at 12:00 am

Michael Loukas had his day in a southeast Michigan courtroom without ever leaving the Upper Peninsula.Representing himself in a breach-of-contract suit he filed against one of his former attorneys, Loukas argued his case to the judge and jury appearing only on a video screen. Loukas, 38, is serving a 20- to 40-year prison sentence for second-degree homicide and has twice attempted to escape.

When his case came to trial last summer, court and prison officials were looking at some expensive and complicated logistics. Incarcerated in the Chippewa Correctional Facility in the eastern UP, Loukas would need two corrections officers to transport him to Pontiac for the trial as well as space in the Oakland County Jail, where he'd be held before and after the hearing. Judge Mark Goldsmith, who presided over the trial, says Loukas' history of escape made it risky too: "The issue was really two-fold: one was cost, the other was security," Goldsmith says.

Enter modern technology. Loukas agreed to appear by videoconference for his trial. He could see the judge, jury and defendant in real time via a camera in the courtroom, and they could see him on the monitor.

"We decided this would be the best way to give him his day in court, or his virtual day in court," Goldsmith says. "It was certainly the first trial we've conducted in that fashion."

Technology is changing how law is practiced in Michigan, nowhere more than in Oakland County. Court officials there say innovations are improving efficiency, lowering costs and increasing the public's accessibility to proceedings and records. Courtrooms are equipped with videoconferencing equipment for live, remote testimony such as Loukas'. Most hearings are digitally recorded, and a DVD of proceedings can be requested and purchased for $20 in place of a more expensive transcript typed by a court reporter.

About half the judges are part of a two-month-old program that allows attorneys to telephone in for certain hearings instead of appearing at the courthouse — that saves billing the clients for travel or waiting time.

A handful of judges also require attorneys to electronically file court documents instead of bringing or mailing stacks of paper copies to the courthouse. Judges are handling fewer paper files and viewing more documents on computer screens. Court documents are available online.

"You're seeing a lot of changes in technology that you didn't see before," says Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Edward Sosnick, who at 67 remembers his self-corrective typewriter being an innovation of its time.

Other county courts are trying to improve their technologies. In Macomb County, a handful of the courtrooms digitally record proceedings, saving the cost of a court reporter's salary and benefits, says Chief Judge Richard Caretti. He predicts that, by the end of 2009, Macomb County Circuit Court will have e-filing for court documents but can't estimate the cost to upgrade the court's computer system. Caretti says administrators have looked at Oakland County's system to determine what technologies they might add in Macomb.

In Wayne County Circuit Court — the state's largest — budget constraints have prevented innovations from being implemented, says Chief Judge William Giovan. The court would like to do more video arraignments and have better facilities for videoconferenced testimony. "This requires, of course, capital outlay for the equipment. We were in discussions with the county about getting the equipment but this has kind of been put on hold because of the issue regarding our dispute on finances," he says.

Giovan, who is retiring at the end of the year, deferred specific questions regarding costs and plans to incoming Chief Judge Virgil Smith, who declined interview requests.

The court sued the county this year seeking a freeze of the 2007-2008 budget that the county had wanted reduced by 10 percent.

"Until that's resolved, we're probably not going to be able to go ahead on this. But I have to believe that sooner or later this will happen, it makes a lot of sense," Giovan says.

With all the technology come concerns about security, says Marcia McBrien, public information officer for the Michigan Supreme Court.

"Part of our work is making sure that you have openness and service as much as possible without compromising security," she says. "For example, keeping e-filing secure. If you submit documents electronically there have to be adequate safeguards so that no one can get in and tamper. Security is one concern that's always part of the discussion."

Some records may need some protection or redaction, she says, to prevent release of private information and identity theft. But overall, courts will move toward more technology.

"We just think it's a way to improve court services for the public," she says.

Saving money

A Michigan auditor general report scheduled to be released this week will recommend more prisoners appear by videoconference for court hearings — as Loukas did — instead of being transported from prisons to local courthouses.

Russ Marlan, department spokesman, says the state could save thousands of dollars in transportation and security costs. The infrastructure is in place in the Department of Corrections: All of the prisons have videoconferencing equipment that's currently used for all parole board hearings. The same could be done when prisoners are involved in civil cases like Loukas are witnesses in trials or have other proceedings of their own.

Marlan declined to give a specific number of times the technology could be used or how much money would be saved. "I can't give that to you until the audit comes out," he says.

David Moran, a law professor at University of Michigan and director of the Innocence clinic there, says saving prisoners from leaving their prisons is often desirable.

"Many times the prisoner would prefer not to do that. It's uncomfortable and disruptive to get chained up and stuck in the back of the car," Moran says.

Civil cases, Moran says, don't raise nearly as many questions as criminal proceedings when technology changes traditional procedures.

"There really aren't too many serious constitutional concerns for doing civil litigation by telephone or video as long as the link is good enough so that certain requirements can be met, for example, the party that's remote has to be able to consult with an attorney privately," he says.

In Loukas' civil trial, his video appearance from prison did not hamper his eventual outcome: He won a $2,500 judgment.

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]