A few months ago, I wrote a column about video conference hearings in Georgia. This is an issue that is important to our state and to fiscal conservatives like me. Much has happened since my last column. I wanted to update the community on the progress of this idea.
For those of you who missed my last column, here is video conferencing in a nutshell.
Every day across Georgia, hundreds of witnesses must appear in court to provide testimony. The technology that video conferencing provides makes the actual appearance of these witnesses unnecessary.
Some of you may have heard of Skype or Microsoft Link to perform such tasks. Video conferencing actually allows the witness to be “present” in the courtroom even if that witness lives thousands of miles away. The person is live on a screen in the courtroom, able to testify, confer with attorneys, and be able to see other witnesses testify.
Video conferencing is actually being used in limited circumstances right now in west Georgia. For instance, the Douglas County jail has a system set up where I can visit with my clients at the jail via video conference. From my home or office, I can turn on my laptop and speak to my client while looking at him or her in the eye on my computer screen. It’s like having my client right there in my office.
That alone saves my clients a tremendous amount of money. It is also a revenue stream for the county. Each video conference costs $25.00.
A second example of where video conferencing will work is with crime lab witnesses. Oftentimes, a crime lab witness just has to answer a couple of important questions about an illegal drug; “Did you test this substance?’, “What did you find it to be?”
Currently, the crime lab witness must be subpoenaed for court, drive to the county where the trial is taking place, and wait to be called to testify. This is a waste of time for the state employee and a waste of money for the Georgia taxpayer. It also causes a backup of cases at the G.B.I. crime lab in Atlanta.
While there are numerous examples, another one is habeas corpus hearings. This month, I was called to South Georgia as a witness in a habeas case. Along with me, were several other lawyers, prosecutors, probation officers, and other state employees.
While habeas corpus is an important Constitutional right, the vast majority of motions filed by inmates are simply frivolous. As I looked across the courtroom the other day, I wondered how much taxpayer money was being wasted on the two meritless hearings that were to take place.
Naturally, some folks will have a problem with video conferencing. The primary concern would be the defendant’s right to confront the witnesses who testify against him. I understand this concern. However, provisions can be made by legislators to alleviate the concerns of people who would be worried about witness confrontation issues.
I recently spoke to some members of the west Georgia delegation to the General Assembly, local DA’s, superior court judges, and some criminal defense attorneys about the opportunity to significantly expand the use of video conferencing. There was overwhelming support for the idea.
Because this legislative session is almost over, a bill addressing video conferencing will not be considered this year. However, I have received assurances that such a bill could seriously be considered in 2016.
Another good sign is that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit (which includes Georgia) is experimenting with new uses for video conferencing. In recent months, the Court has used video conferencing technology to make it easier for judges to participate in oral arguments.
This is important because the Constitutionality of certain uses of video conferencing will likely be addressed at some point by the federal courts.
Georgia taxpayers would benefit if a strong bill was introduced in 2016 authorizing the use of video conferences in as many circumstances that would pass Constitutional challenges.
I hope that you will join me in this endeavor.