Court proceedings go virtual in time of COVID-19
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When COVID-19 reached Colorado in March, the 14th Judicial District, which includes Routt, Grand and Moffat counties, moved all of its proceedings online and conducted them over Cisco Webex, a video-streaming platform that has gained popularity during the pandemic.
Before COVID-19, defendants appeared in court on Tuesdays for their first appearance after being charged, where they enter a guilty or not guilty plea and have the option to meet with prosecutors to discuss a plea deal.
With court shifting to Webex, judges now meet with defendants sooner, and the process is “much more efficient,” said Routt County District Attorney Matt Karzen, who added that most people in Routt Combined Court are there for traffic offenses and misdemeanors.
“That’s a component of the system we’ll want to keep,” Karzen said, referring to the efficiency of virtual court.
Because the 14th District encompasses three counties, officers of the court say virtual proceedings have saved both defendants and their attorneys time and money that would have been spent traveling back and forth to court.
“What normally takes two or three hours now takes two or three minutes,” said Adam Mayo, a Steamboat Springs criminal defense attorney.
Mayo said the act of appearing in court can be intimidating for many, and being able to conference in from their home or their attorney’s office can take away some of that fear and save a person from having to spend hours away from work or their family.
“Your life is less interrupted,” he said.
While the casualness of not physically being in court may be helpful for defendants, Judge Shelley Hill said the seriousness of the court needs to be preserved.
“Court proceedings should be solemn, and people should respect them,” she said. “They should have that same feeling of solemnity when they appear by Webex.”
Hill said, as time has gone on, most people have adapted to virtual hearings and behaved appropriately, though in the beginning, court participants occasionally appeared in inappropriate clothing.
While hearings have transitioned online relatively easily, jury trials have been more difficult, Karzen said, though the district has only had one jury trial since March. In that trial, jurors were masked and spread out across the courtroom during the trial and were seated in a large room for deliberations.
While the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to a speedy and public trial, Karzen said there is no concrete timeline for “speedy,” but the court is “a ways away from constitutionally unreasonable” in its pending jury trials.
Notably, the trial for William C. Ellifritz, a Craig man charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of Elliot Stahl, has been pushed back to March 2021, though Karzen said the delay was not related to the pandemic.
In that trial, he said jury selection will be up to the judge, but Karzen anticipates there will only be five to six people in the courtroom at a time, spread out with masks to minimize the number of people who are together in an enclosed space at one time.
While virtual court has complicated jury trials, Mayo said it has “made life a lot easier for everyone” for most hearings.
Hill hopes the court will retain some of the virtual components even after the pandemic has ended, as they benefit large, mostly rural districts such as the 14th.
“We get a substantial number of people from the Front Range and elsewhere,” she said. “I envision those participants can participate by Webex without getting in their cars.”
While it happens infrequently, Karzen said the occasional baby or pet that is seen or heard during virtual court “adds some happiness to the proceeding.”
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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