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Technology presenting challenges for judges

We must learn to balance the material wonders of technology with the spiritual demands of our human race.

– John Naisbitt, American author and public speaker in the area of future studies

Technology is developing exponentially, and this presents a challenge for American trial judges.

How should a trial judge balance the efficiency, convenience and cost-savings of modern technology with the due process and constitutional rights of court litigants?

In 2003, when I took the bench on the Metropolitan Court, judges conducted bond arraignments in the basement of the old Metro Courthouse. Through a sheet of plexiglass with a small opening, judges would speak personally with each and every incarcerated defendant before setting conditions of release.

Today, with consideration to safety and transportation costs, we conduct these same hearings via video conferencing. Judges are in an empty courtroom with a small video screen in front of them on the bench and two large screens behind them for public viewing. At the Metropolitan Detention Center, west of town, there is a similar set-up for all of the people who have been arrested.

When we started video arraignments, some people felt that the hearings were unconstitutional. These people felt that a person accused of a crime had the right to be brought in person before a judge, not a video screen. That issue was addressed, and our current laws and court rules permit video arraignments.

The iPad is another example of technology that affected judicial practices. Officers, deputies and detectives used to drive to judges’ houses at all hours to bring search and arrest warrants for our review and signature. Especially in exigent circumstances, a quick approval of a warrant was necessary.

With the iPad, officers are now able to email warrants to the on-call judge, who then reviews the document, puts the officer under oath over the phone, signs the warrant on the iPad and emails it back to the officer. This process is much quicker and more efficient.

Some people objected to this process, arguing that an officer should be physically present before a judge to swear under oath that a warrant was true and accurate. This issue had to be addressed, and now the iPad is routinely used to sign warrants outside normal court hours.

And what could I possibly add to the longstanding and continuing debate over police lapel video cameras? The original concept behind lapel cameras was to protect both an officer and a private citizen during an encounter by recording it in real time.

Good idea, right? Unfortunately, this particular technology has become the source of significant conflict in our community. Today, depending upon who you talk to, lapel cameras are either an optional law enforcement tool which often malfunctions or its use should be mandatory and elevated to a constitutional level on par with Miranda warnings.

It will be up to trial judges, and ultimately our appellate courts, to navigate a rational course through the complex legal issues raised by lapel cameras.

Before long, trial judges also will have to balance the use of technology with the constitutional right to confrontation. It is likely that large life-size screens will be developed for use in the courtroom. When a police officer or forensics expert is faced with numerous trial settings in one day, the prosecution likely will urge courts to permit video testimony in lieu of live testimony. If a jury can see and hear a witness on a high definition life-size screen during testimony, will this satisfy the accused’s constitutional right to confront his or her accuser?

And, is it too wild to suggest that technology will make even courthouses obsolete in the not-too-distant future?

Could video conferencing replace actual trials in a courtroom? Would that sufficiently satisfy the due process rights of courtroom litigants? Or, if domestic and international terrorism threatens our judiciary, is it conceivable that public trials will become too risky? Will judges and/or juries appear only by video?

Nothing is too unimaginable anymore when it comes to technology. But when a person’s inalienable human rights are involved, rights which have been openly declared in our American Constitution, technology must take a back seat.

Efficiency and cost savings are worthy goals for any judge in the administration of his or her docket. But that almost visceral need for human interaction, eyeball to eyeball, when a person’s liberty or property interests are at stake should always take priority over the ease and marvels of technology.

Judge Daniel Ramczyk is a judge of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the judge individually and not those of the court.