WHITE PLAINS, NY (April 15, 2022) – The Westchester Department of Corrections has reversed a decision announced earlier this month to disband the Virtual Court Unit after nearly two years due to an increase in cases of the Omicron BA.2 sub-variant.
On April 7, in New Rochelle City Court, Judge Jared R. Rice told attorneys in his courtroom that Westchester County Jail was in the process of disbanding virtual operations.
County officials upheld the decision the next day, citing improvements in COVID conditions, saying courts, police departments and legal aid departments had been told the virtual court unit would cease operations on Monday. April 18.
In court on Thursday, Judge Rice said the decision to disband the virtual court unit was put on hold due to the increase in cases of Omicron’s BA.2 subvariant which had become the dominant strain of COVID. -19 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One of the new features of the court system since the first wave of COVID-19 in 2020 has been the installation of videoconferencing systems in county courtrooms, with attorneys and defendants making “virtual” appearances before courts. judges.
Almost all attorneys and most defendants prefer virtual courtroom appearances because they can make court “appearances” from the comfort of their home or office.
A recent out-of-state DWI defendant, said his license was suspended in New York, ignored the judge’s order.
“I don’t live in New York,” the defendant replied as he appeared on a television screen while seated behind the wheel of a car in Pennsylvania.
In the past two weeks, after almost two years, county prisoners have been brought to justice
Westchester County Jail‘s Virtual Court Unit in Valhalla was “set up to support court appearances when it was deemed unsafe to do so in person,” the county spokeswoman said. Westchester, Catherine Cioffi.
“I don’t believe we’ve seen you before,” Judge Anne E. Minihan said as defendant Mary Thompson, the New Rochelle librarian turned bank robber, appeared before her in mental health court of Westchester County on Tuesday, April 12.
Thompson was arrested on May 20, 2021.
Courts in New York State were closed on March 16, 2020 for all non-essential functions due to the pandemic. On June 30, 2021, the courts of Westchester gradual increase in in-person procedures in courthouses although jury trials remain inaccessible to defendants.
The class of defendants perhaps less enamored with virtual court appearances have been prisoners at Westchester County Jail who have been denied the opportunity to see (even briefly) friends and family to support them in the gallery or, at least, to break the monotony of their incarceration with an exit in front of a local or county court.
Defendants must consent to appear virtually.
In the past two years of coverage of Westchester County Courts, this reporter has never seen a defendant refuse consent to a virtual appearance raising issues of coercion.
Despite the consent requirement, virtual court appearances for detainees can raise serious constitutional issues: the placement of the monitor, often facing the judge and court reporter and away from the podium; the often small “windows” that appear when multiple lawyers and defendants appear on the monitor screen at the same time; that the prisoners are only partially supervised and generally seated; combine to make it difficult, if not impossible, for the public and the press to see that the on-screen prisoner is the person named in a particular indictment or indictment and to assess the health and condition general physique of the prisoner.
The establishment of virtual appearances of detainees in court, perhaps understandable in the early days of the pandemic when so little was known about the spread of the virus, before there were vaccines and therapeutics, before the sharp decline in virulence of successive variants, makes little sense today.
Questions arise as to the standard set forth in the Suspension Clause, Article 1, Section 9 of the United States Constitution, which excludes the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, except “when in the event of rebellion or invasion public safety may require it”.
A pandemic is not an armed uprising.
The prosecution of VCU in 2021 and now in 2022 raises Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment issues for the defendant and First Amendment issues for reporters covering the courts.