Michigan knits together far-flung courts with video vérité

Michigan is a big state, the largest in area east of the Mississippi, with 83 counties spread from the Canadian border to the state lines with Indiana and Ohio. It is more than 600 miles from Ironwood in the Western Upper Peninsula to Detroit, and there are no shortcuts between the state’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas.

This means that justice in Michigan can be expensive.

In 2009, the state’s Corrections Department was spending from $4 million to $5 million a year transporting prisoners to hearings in court, and State Police toxicologists would spend several days traveling to testify in routine DUI cases that often were settled at the last minute without trial. There was obvious potential for savings if local courts could be persuaded to use videoconferencing for hearings rather than tying up two corrections officers for several days for each prisoner transported at an average cost of $800 per trip.

A small handful of courts had their own video systems, but their use was not widespread. “The courts had no motivation financially to spend the money for it, because they weren’t the ones who would see the savings,” said Michael Swayze, judicial information systems manager for the State Supreme Court.

But the Supreme Court had some technology money available, and under pressure from the Corrections Department and the State Police, “we decided we would start putting video in,” Swayze said. “Our motivation was to save the Corrections Department and the State Police money.”

The backstory

The program began in 2009 with the installation of equipment from Polycom in 12 courtrooms. “We didn’t want to jump in with both feet until we knew that it was going to be used and we would get a payback,” he said.

The first installation was in a small branch district courtroom in a community with low bandwidth. When it was turned on, “I got a crystal clear HD connection,” Swayze said. “It was like looking through a window into the courtroom. I knew then that this was going to work.”

When the program started, just 2 percent of hearings that involved a prisoner in another jurisdiction were being done by video. By the end of 2013 some 300 courtrooms out of about 900 statewide had been equipped for video — at least one courtroom in each county — and the volume of video hearings had increased to 27 percent of those that would otherwise involve transporting prisoners, saving the Corrections Department alone more than $1 million a year.

“The systems are almost paying for themselves as soon as we put them in,” Swayze said. “There are all kinds of savings for the local funding units [the local courts] as well.” The costs of guarding and transporting prisoners between facilities within a county also have been reduced if the prisoner can appear instead by video. In addition to cutting the costs of handling prisoners, expert witnesses including State Police toxicologists also can testify remotely, cutting their transportation costs and increasing productivity.

The Supreme Court settled on Polycom’s RealPresence Platform for courtroom video in part because of its familiarity in the state. The State Police and Corrections Department had already standardized on the technology. Corrections was using video to help deliver health care to the system’s 49,000 prisoners, so it was a known commodity.

“We weren’t going with any other brand,” Swayze said. “These things had to be absolutely reliable,” or the judges would be reluctant to accept and use the systems in their courtrooms.

How it works

The RealPresence Platform provides a bridge for audio, video and data sharing that enables high definition connections with any kind of device, whether Polycom or not. A multipoint control unit connects with a collaboration server, which in Michigan courts is Polycom’s RMX 2000 hardware appliance. This provides multimedia conferencing with dynamic bandwidth allocation, and supports H.323 and SIP video connections. CloudAXIS software on the server enables video conferencing with users of Skype, Facebook, Google Talk and other applications. Connections are secured with AES encryption.

The courtrooms typically are equipped with two high-definition display screens, a high-definition camera, microphones and speakers. “These aren’t expensive,” said Russ Colbert, director of Polycom’s government markets. “The trend on all of this technology is downward in price.”

Once the initial 12 installations had proved themselves, Swayze began expanding the system in 2010 in the state’s remote Upper Peninsula, which had the least dense population, the longest distances to travel and offered the greatest potential savings. Initially one system was installed in each county, put where it was hoped it would do the most good. “Which judge is most likely to use it and share it?” was the criteria, Swayze said.

In 2011 the program began expanding southward, with a goal of outfitting at least one courtroom for each of the different courts in each county — circuit, district and probate courts. The goal eventually is to have a video system in every courtroom in the state. The systems now are being installed at a rate of about 100 a year, and only a few of the busiest counties have been completely equipped. But every county now has at least one system and Swayze said he is happy with the 27 percent rate of remote hearings, although he said there still is room for expansion.

Very few of the judges are reluctant to use the video systems, and “I think we can probably do 60 percent,” he said. But complete coverage of all courts still is some years away. In the meantime there still are nontechnical issues that will have to be worked out for video in the courtroom.

“Technology is leading procedure,” Swayze said.

Confronting virtual accusers

The Constitution guarantees defendants the right to confront their accusers, which raises questions about the extent to which video presence is allowable. Michigan’s system has been largely used so far for hearings in which the defendant takes part remotely, but there also have been trials in which testimony has been given via video, usually technical testimony from expert witnesses.

“But we’ve also had murder trials when, with everyone’s permission, video has been used,” Swayze said.

The rules for when video can be allowed still are being worked out, however. Current court rules, which are set by the state’s Supreme Court, allow either party to opt out of video testimony in a trial, so both sides have to agree for it to be allowed. But a new rule is under consideration that would give the trial judge discretion to allow or deny video testimony.

“I could tell you there’s no reason it couldn’t work,” Swayze said of video testimony “But I’m not a lawyer.” Despite his enthusiasm for the technology, he admits that, “if I were on trial for murder, I might want everyone there in the courtroom.”

New rules from the state’s Supreme Court would not address the U.S. Constitutional issue of what constitutes confronting a witness at trial. Eventually, the limits of video testimony in the courtroom will have to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, Swayze said.


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