The City of Victoria Municipal Court is scheduled to conduct its first virtual bench trials Oct. 7 as COVID-19 continues to limit the court’s ability to safely host in-person trials.
“We need to ensure that defendants can exercise their right to a trial,” Municipal Court Judge Vanessa Heinold said. “Rather than postponing justice, we have to find creative ways to provide access as the pandemic continues.”
The court was prepared to begin hosting virtual bench trials in September, but defendants who were contacted about scheduled court dates either pleaded out, failed to appear or had to be rescheduled to accommodate all participants.
The court’s virtual kiosk is available to participants who are unable to access the internet to attend virtual bench trials and other mandatory court sessions.
The move to virtual bench trials is the most recent expansion of the court’s virtual offerings during COVID-19, a process that has involved collaboration with Information Technology and Legal to craft solutions that draw on court staff’s own experiences and the experiences of other courts around the state as well as guidance from the Office of Court Administration.
The court is now exploring the possibility of hosting virtual jury trials after the Office of Court Administration last month ordered all municipal courts in Texas to suspend in-person jury trials through Dec. 1, 2020.
“It’s very feasible for municipal courts to host virtual jury trials because the cases we handle are less complicated than cases tried in higher courts, such as county or district courts,” Municipal Court Administrator Tiffany Totah said. “One of the concerns with remote jury trials is that jurors might use their computers to research the case, and that’s less of a problem with traffic cases or other Class C misdemeanors.”
Nevertheless, Totah and Heinold are working to address a variety of concerns before they move forward. For example, a unique feature of jury trials is the need to separate witnesses so that they are not influenced by each other’s testimony. This problem could be addressed on Zoom by sending witnesses to separate waiting rooms until it is their turn to testify.
“The process will be more complicated and probably take longer than an in-person trial,” Heinold said. “However, it’s worth taking the extra time if we can allow people to exercise their rights.”
For more information about Municipal Court, including E-Court, go to www.victoriatx.gov/court; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or call 361-485-3050.
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