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Distance technology here to stay in courts

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The COVID-19 pandemic has left a lasting impact on the courts, with hearings as likely to be held via a screen as they are in person.

Going into 2022, many local courts have found there are advantages to using technology instead of in-person hearings, and that may continue beyond the pandemic.

Belmont County Prosecutor Kevin Flanagan said the need to continue conducting business as the pandemic raged led to adapting to new technology, but his office’s upgrades have served the staff well.

“Prior to any idea that the pandemic would wreak the havoc that it did, this office put in place in late 2018 a system where we could receive and catalog all of the criminal reports that were sent to us electronically,” Flanagan said. “By doing that, when the pandemic hit, we were in an incredible position to not only have some of our administrative staff members work from home, but they did so without missing a beat at all, because everything was given to us from law enforcement electronically. We were able to then generate criminal charges to get to the courts via the electronic system that we had in place.

“If we were still operating under the old way … it would have been very difficult to be able to serve the needs of law enforcement without having a computer-based filing system in place,” he said.

Flanagan said using online meeting platforms and other technology, the sheriff’s office no longer needs to transport an inmate from the county jail for every hearing. Instead, an inmate is led to a video room on the jail property to appear on camera.

“It really did open our eyes to what is available when it comes to having, for instance, testimony to the court system via Zoom or some kind of video testimony. Though we had done that in the past, we didn’t do it with any regularity, and so we saw through 2020 and 2021 this expansion of the use of video technology, and it actually is quite economical,” Flanagan said.

“Obviously for our trials — and we have had many of them in 2021 – the individual would have to be brought to trial. But for other, less important hearings, we have relied heavily on Zoom technology and video technology.”

Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato said the tools at hand have proven valuable.

“The Zoom calls, appearances and things of that nature shall continue irrelevant and having nothing to do with COVID. They’ve turned out to be quite beneficial, and we are continuing with them for both the prison system and the jail system,” he said.

Belmont County Common Pleas Judge John Vavra also said moving forward he will continue to hear as many cases electronically as possible, particularly in speaking to defendants at the jail and prison.

“We’ve been dealing with COVID for almost two years now, and we’ve certainly had to adjust many things,” Belmont County Western Division Judge Eric Costine said. “It’s been a real learning experience trying to figure out how we would wade our way through that, getting through the shutdown and getting back to business as usual. Yes, we are still doing things differently. We do not have inmates transported to the court very frequently, at least not in my court. … It seems to be working well and obviously saves the county on transportation expense.”

Costine added that frequent transportation of inmates to hearings may not resume.

“I don’t anticipate we’re going to move backwards at any point and have to redo the way we’re doing things,” he said. “We’ll probably never get back to the old way. That’s my anticipation. Why do you go back to a system where a new system is working and actually saving money?”

Costine added that even if some are not familiar with technology, staff members at the courts are able to help “adopt and adapt” to new tools.

“The legal field is slow to change,” he said. “It seems most people in the legal field want to do things the same old way, over and over again, and we’re not necessarily receptive to change. But this has demonstrated definitely that we can do change, and that change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

“There are things we’ve had to improvise with Zoom,” Belmont County Eastern Division Judge David Trouten said. “We do use that still, and it does come in handy for certain things, although for contested matters … I think we’ll have to have in-person for that, because it’s critical to actually be face-to-face in those situations. … You have to be able to judge someone’s body language and that sort of thing, so I think with that regard it’s definitely better to be in person. … Doing Zoom does slow things down. … I prefer in-person, but we’ll use the Zoom whenever we can because of COVID.”

Belmont County Northern Division Judge Chris Berhalter said adaptations will continue into 2022 as long as the COVID-19 pandemic persists.

“That keeps those inmates safe and not exposed. However once this pandemic ends, I believe that practice will be curtailed greatly. That they will be brought to the courtroom so they can be there right next to their attorney,” Berhalter said, adding Zoom and other adaptations may still be used for pretrial hearings. “That cuts down significantly on litigation expenses for attorneys having to travel to the courtroom. … We’ve also expanded the use of Zoom when we’ve had to conduct proceedings with individuals who are already sentenced and incarcerated in other facilities.

“Where we’re at with the pandemic, I think we’ll continue to see extensive use of Zoom proceedings,” he said.

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