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Problems with Zoom Hearings in NJ Municipal Courts

Virtual Court Proceedings During COVID-19: Where the Issue Lies

Life has come to a screeching halt amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing millions of Americans to transition into an unfamiliar lifestyle. Countless people are unemployed, infected with the novel coronavirus, doing virtual learning and staying at home, for instance. But defendants, prosecutors and defense attorneys in New Jersey are adjusting to a new system that many argue is confusing and frustrating.

New Jersey’s municipal courts are required to function remotely via Zoom in most cases. However, virtual court hearings do not necessarily equate to in-person hearings. Social distancing is difficult to execute in courtrooms consisting of judges, juries, defendants, prosecutors and the like, which is why virtual proceedings are mandated for now. As a result, justice cannot be served without due process, which requires governments to follow “procedural mechanisms when attempting to take an individual’s life, liberty or property,” as stated by the US attorney’s office. Unfortunately, such “procedural mechanisms” have ultimately been derailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and defendants are left to suffer the effects.

There are some benefits to Zoom court proceedings, however. They save people time, money, resources and are generally more convenient. Defendants don’t have to take time off work or pay for daycare to resolve a traffic ticket, for example. As such, proponents of Zoom hearings —certain uses of them, that is — claim that virtual court proceedings are a “game-changer” that can generate much-needed reforms within the criminal justice system.

In contrast, our traffic ticket lawyer sees otherwise. Although we recognize the benefits of Zoom court hearings, the disadvantages strongly outweigh the advantages.

Court Case Backlogs

The backlog of municipal court cases more than doubled in August 2019 compared to August of this year. Last August, approximately 325,000 cases were backlogged but that number increased to more than 740,000 cases in August 2020. In addition, fewer than half as many cases were resolved in July and August of this year compared to July and August of last year.

Although there was a 25% decrease in the number of cases filed in municipal courts between July 2019 and June 2020, municipal prosecutors are dealing with an overwhelming case workload. Some defense attorneys claim their clients’ municipal matters have been unresolved for nearly two years, and virtual court hearings are not making this situation better.

One reason for this delay is that prosecutors must spend more time trying to prepare for and resolve municipal cases than ever before, as they have daily tasks that otherwise weren’t required pre-pandemic, such as:

  • Identifying defendants’ emails and phone number to communicate with them before their court date
  • Checking “work baskets” for cases in the new online system
  • Determining if cases can be resolved via mail
  • Completing, scanning and sending plea forms

Technical Difficulties

Contrary to popular belief, elderly people aren’t the only ones assumed to have difficulties operating technology. Prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys are also having trouble utilizing technology in their court proceedings. For example, some defendants have their username or phone numbers on display rather than their legal names, making it difficult to determine who has joined the virtual proceeding.

Other technological difficulties lie in the lack of knowledge in muting/unmuting microphones, setting up and joining Zoom conferences and presenting evidence. Try to envision a prosecutor presenting evidence such as drugs and weapons to members of the court via a Zoom conference. If you do, you may find that it’s nearly impossible to fully examine and interpret evidence through a screen, which could have negative impacts on defendants’ cases.

In addition, court members cannot see a witness’s reaction to the presentation of evidence nor their physical responses to evidence such as squirming or shaking their leg. A defense attorney’s cross-examination and prosecutor’s closing argument do not have the same effect online as they do in the courtroom. The lack of face-to-face interactions eliminates the courts’ abilities have a comprehensive understanding of the cases presented to them.

The most concerning elements of virtual court hearings is the lack of computer access and technological capabilities for defendants and municipalities. Some defendants do not have computers or stable and secure Wi-Fi access, while municipalities don’t always have the bandwidth to accommodate court hearings. As a result, some towns have had to share their resources with nearby municipalities who lacked the necessary means to operate virtual court hearings.

Lack of Cohesive Structure

During COVID-19, certain defendants also have the option to handle their cases through a new online dispute resolution program or by mail. Before the pandemic, there were limits on who could plea-by-mail, but in April, court officials added 400 offenses that defendants can plead guilty for and resolve online without going to court. However, if jail time, driver’s license suspension or community service is on the line, such defendants cannot plead guilty by mail.

Further, the online dispute resolution program allow allows the defendant and prosecutor to make one offer, which contrasts the typical negotiation process where both sides reach a compromise over time. Defendants who plead guilty through the online portal will not know what penalties they will face as a result, and prosecutors who offer a favorable deal would likely offer a different settlement had they examined the case in court.

Our Traffic Ticket Lawyer Is Here to Help

Virtual court hearings are something that no one was prepared for. In order to ensure justice is served despite the limitations on in-person proceedings, our lawyer goes above and beyond to ensure our clients’ cases are properly handled by the courts. Although Zoom hearings are a learning curve for most court members, there is no excuse to allow defendants to suffer the effects of their downfalls. As such, we do our part by continuously staying up-to-date on best practice standards for virtual court proceedings, online dispute resolution programs and plea-by-mail.

Our traffic ticket attorney at Martin A. Kron & Associates, P.C. proudly serves clients throughout New York and New Jersey. Get started on your case by contacting us online or by calling (212) 235-1525!

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